Three More Inches of Winter

Or 8 centimetres, whichever you prefer. The snow arrived last night and it was still falling this morning, turning our world white. Again. Yes, a sure sign of spring in Alberta.

A month ago we were hiking the Sonoran Desert, panting in the heat, searching for shade. The snakes and lizards were out — and a profusion of flowers. A much nicer view right now. 🙂

Blue palo verde
Blue palo verde
Evening primrose
Evening primrose
Strawberry hedgehog
Strawberry hedgehog

Bottoms Up

The size, colour and speed of the pinacate (pin-uh-KAW-tay) beetle make it easy to spot on the desert.

Unfortunately this one was moving so fast I could hardly keep it in focus. So I placed a twig in its path to slow it down.

It immediately went into a defensive headstand. The first time I saw this I was startled. This time I was pleased — it stopped moving so I could finally focus on it in the dying light.


Like the small milkweed bug, pinacates rely on chemical protection from predators. But they take it one step further. Their bottoms-up stance is a warning. Ignore it and you get a blast of apparently noxious-smelling chemicals. I say apparently because I’ve never tried to provoke one to the point that it let loose with the spray. It has worse enemies than me to look out for.

While the spray deters some predators, the pinacate is no match for the grasshopper mouse. It grabs the beetle with its paws, stuffs the bottom end into the sand and begins dining at the top end, stopping short of the nasty gland at the other end.

Pinacate beetle/Clown beetle/Stink beetle   Eleodes spp  (probably E. obscurus)

A Two-fer

I get excited about lizards. Maybe I imprinted on them when I was younger because whenever I spot one, I stop everything else to check it out. Which is what happened when I saw the common side-blotched lizard on the edge of the dirt road.

Of course once I stopped she started to move, but I got several photos before she disappered into the shadows under the creosote.

It was only when I looked at the pics on my computer than I realized I’d captured two lizards, not one. Bingo!

Side-blotched lizards are small, no bigger around than my slim index finger, with a tail a bit longer than the body. If you’re lucky enough to get close to one you may see the dark-blue/black blotch immediately behind the front leg which gives it its name.

As for the rest of the markings, they can vary quite a bit. I was lucky — the two I found are a perfect match for the pair in Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona, by Thomas C. Brennan and Andrew T. Holycross. (An excellent reference book and easy to carry in the field.)

In my photo the female (note the blotch) is on the left and the male on the right.

Male colouration indicates status. Adult males tend to have a scattering of bright turquoise spots on their backs and tails — but it’s the throat colour that tells who’s the boss.

In Lizards of the American Southwest, Thomas C. Brennan explains:

  • orange-throated males defend and usurp high-quality territory
  • blue-throated males defend small territories but don’t take over anyone else’s
  • yellow-throated males don’t have territories; they sneak in and mate with any female they find.

Lizards who dress to impress. Who knew!  🙂

Behind the name …
Captain Howard Stansbury of the US Corps of Topographical Engineers lead an expedition to explore and survey Utah’s Great Salt Lake area (1849 to 1851 ). Scientific members of the expedition discovered several new species, including the common side-blotched lizard which was named in his honour.

Common side-blotched lizard   Uta stansburiana


The Little Tyrant

A Wikipedia entry describes Say’s phoebe as a drab, chunky bird. That hardly befits the pair of aerial acrobats I encountered on the desert.

They were sallying back and forth from their perches on ocotillo branches to snatch flying insects out of the air. Grace and beauty on the wing. My photographic skills were a poor match for their antics.

These little birds have a tremendous range — from Mexico, through the continental US, into Canada and as far north as Alaska.

Say’s phoebe belongs to the family of birds called Tyrannidae, the tyrant flycatchers, probably the largest bird family with more than 400 species in the Americas. As for why they’re called tyrants, that’s a story for another time.

Behind the name …

Say’s Phoebe is named for Thomas Say (1787 – 1834), a Quaker from a well-to-do Philadelphia family. He trained as an apothecary but his real interest was in natural history which is where he made his greatest contributions.

thomas_sayHe joined Major Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains (1819-1820) as a zoologist. During the trek Say wrote the first European accounts of numerous animals including several lizards and snakes, swift foxes, coyotes and numerous birds, including this phoebe.

His contributions to American natural history are ranked with those of John Muir and John James Audubon.

Say’s phoebe   Sayornis saya
Ocotillo  Fouquieria splendens

Desert Ow-l

Hoo-hoo might this be?

I caught only a glimpse of the “eyes” as I passed but it stopped me mid-step. Then I realized they were scars where two cholla (CHOY-uh) “buds” — actually stem joints — had fallen off.

Chainfruit cholla — so named for the clusters of fruit that hang down — is common on the Sonoran Desert. It’s also known as jumping cholla. For good reason.

The stem buds are so loosely attached they come loose at the slightest touch and you quickly find yourself wearing them. Not good. Best way to remove them is to place a comb between you and the hitchhikers and quickly flip it away.

Alert: If the spines are in your skin this is gonna feel like tooth extraction without freezing. Been there. Done that. Only once.


P.S. Tired of hiking with the same folks? Just aim the cholla buds in their direction. That should solve the problem.

Chainfruit cholla   Cylindropuntia fulgida

Rain Gauge

A leaf is a leaf is a … rain gauge? Yup. Sort of. Brittlebush leaves act like Ma Nature’s precip monitor. The drier it is, the smaller and whiter the leaves it produces. If the soil dries up too much the leaves drop off altogether.

The we’ve-got-enough-water leaves are dark green, almost hairless. Turn up the heat and turn off the tap and that changes quickly — the next leaves to appear will be greyer and covered by white hairs. Those two factors keep the leaves from overheating by reflecting the sunlight. The tiny hairs also trap moisture.

I took the leaf shots this morning just as the rain started — the wet leaves really show the colour contrast.


Brittlebush is one of the most common plants on the Sonoran Desert. It grows in a half moon shape, like an upsidedown bowl. That shape and the profusion of eye-popping yellow flowers make it easily recognizable.

The image below shows what happens to a single bush when it moves into town and onto a lot where the owner waters plants. Wow. 🙂


Brittlebush   Encelia farninosa
Chuparosa    Justicia californica (aka Beloperone californica)
Palo verde   Parkinsonia aculeata