Sunday, February 28, 2010


Back on February 17 I had the good fortune to be invited on a road trip to Sierra Vista, Arizona by my friend Margarethe Brummermann. We were on our way to visit our mutual friend Pat Sullivan, and his wife Lisa Lee, when we were delighted to spot a small herd of pronghorn, Antilocapra americana.

Most of us here in the U.S. grew up learning this animal as the “pronghorn antelope,” but the truth is that this mammal is in a class by itself. Well, a family at least, and is not at all a true antelope.

Margarethe spotted this herd along Arizona state route 83, just north of the welcome sign for Sonoita. They are probably the subspecies known as the Chihuahuan pronghorn, A. a. mexicana, according to this wonderful article on the ”Firefly Forest” website run by T. Beth Kinsey. Reintroduced to Arizona from Texas, they seem to be acclimating well here.

One aspect of pronghorn biology not in dispute is their legendary speed. The fastest thing on four legs in North America, they can run well over forty (40) miles per hour (70+ km/hr), and sustain that sprint long enough to outlast any potential predator. In fact, one of their few enemies is the golden eagle. Reports of pronghorn clocked at over 60 mph may be an exaggeration, but not by much.

We expected that the herd we were observing would bolt as soon as one saw us, but such was not the case. It was sometimes even difficult to get their attention by whistling at them, so intent were they on grazing. The backdrop of the snow-dusted Santa Rita Mountains made the whole experience even more spectacular.

Back to pronghorn biology for a minute. Both genders can sport horns, er, antlers….Well, there you go again, another enigmatic aspect of this animal. Technically speaking they do have horns, but they are covered in black sheaths that are shed like antlers. Males have the forward-projecting “prong,” while the female lacks this feature. She sometimes lacks the horns altogether, in fact.

One of the best accounts I have ever read about pronghorn is by Daniel Mathews in his book Rocky Mountain Natural History (Raven Editions, 2003). He details the evolution of the species, and the maternal strategies of the females, in literary prose I cannot hope to duplicate. If it is possible to push the pronghorn mystique beyond the level of western grassland icon that it already is, Mathews has achieved that.

I, for one, am deeply grateful to state and federal wildlife agencies and personnel for insuring that this species is sustained as a piece of living history, reminding us of the true meaning of freedom and open spaces. Pronghorn truly exemplify the term “natural history.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

Walking With Dinosaurs

Talk about a sense of being misplaced. Yesterday I found myself sent back in a time machine to the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods of geological history, courtesy of ”Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular.”

The seventeen life-size dinosaurs that are a part of this performance are just the tip of the iceberg. The entire production was a well-choreographed masterpiece of “edutainment.” The special effects were not confined to the dinosaurs, either. The whole stage metamorphosed to reflect the changing geological periods. Lighting created fire and rain. Plants bloomed, withered, and bloomed again.

This is principally a British and Australian creation, a fusion of BBC Worldwide and the Creature Production Company. Consequently, the quality was very high, but the acting and orchestral music were slightly over-the-top in places.

I had a seat that put me at about eye level with some of the shorter “creatures,” but I don’t think there was a bad seat in the house. These are not objects that need great magnification, and well-placed video screens furnished close-up and unobstructed views of each creature, and the correspondingly diminutive human host, “Huxley” the paleontologist. No discernible accent here, and his delivery was usually spot on, spiced with a couple doses of humor.

The visual detail of the dinosaurs was just stunning. No jerky, robotic movements here, everything smooth as silk, right down to blinking eyes. You really don’t want to be anywhere near the tail of the Stegosaurus. Smaller dinosaurs were costumed people operating the creatures as oversized puppets, so one did have to “suspend their disbelief” in some instances, but that was not difficult.

Oddly, the lighting throughout the show, including before it began and after it ended, was quite dim for the most part. Any flaws in mechanics, texture, or detail were surely obscured because of the dappled nature of the lights.

The only other complaint that one might possibly have, aside from the obligatory cheesy merchandise available for sale at exorbitant prices, was the volume of the music and the roars of the creatures. Apparently most arena productions assume we are deaf. I would rather not become so, and was somewhat sorry I had not brought earplugs.

All in all, “Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular” is deserving of the raves it has gotten on its lengthy world tour, which began in 2007 and will end sometime next year. Do check it out.

A few final notes: Still cameras were allowed at the Tucson Convention Center arena where I saw the show, but this may not be the case at all venues. Unless you are a professional photographer, I would leave the camera at home anyway. Dim lighting and surprisingly quick movements of the robotic dinosaurs did not afford many good shots; and flash photography was prohibited.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Feeding Frenzy

I stayed at the Reid Park Zoo right up until its closing last Sunday, February 14, and I was glad I did. It seems that some of the animals get fed when the human crowds thin out. Had I been more observant I would have noticed that there was a growing sense of anticipation among the big birds that share quarters with the white rhinos.

The marabou stork was getting increasingly restless and hanging out closer to the zookeeper entrance to the rhino paddock. It soon became clear why it seemed to have a strategy. The marabou was not the only bird there to get a handout. Amazingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, a whole flock of wild, native black-crowned night-herons swooped in to get a free meal as well! A great egret even joined in the fracas.

It was quite a free-for-all. Here I had thought that birds were such shy creatures. Well, ok, there was that encounter with a great blue heron last summer at the Campus Pond at UMass, but I thought that might be the exception to the rule.

Sure these birds look all elegant and everything….until they are scarfing down a piece of meat bigger than their head. (Isn’t there a rule against that? Maybe it only applies to people).

So persistent are the night-herons that they follow keepers with food. After I exited the zoo, walking around the back to get to the bus stop, what should I see but a pair of night-herons looming on the roof of one of the buildings, patiently waiting for a keeper in a golf cart to come by with more fish.

The keeper informed me that one of the birds has a split beak, and that they do hand feed it because it would not be able to survive otherwise. That did not keep the bird’s rival from trying to steal a bite, though. The competition from wild birds is quite aggravating to the keepers, but as the rhino keeper said, “What can you do?”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Zoo Birds

Among the many animals I saw on my visit to the Reid Park Zoo on February 14, perhaps my favorites were the birds. Many were quite large, colorful, close at hand, and otherwise camera-friendly.

Ironically, the two aviary exhibits were possibly the worst places to try and get pictures. Most of the birds perch high, not affording very good views, with or without a camera. The cage screening is either between you and the bird, or invariably shows up in the background. I did manage this shot of a curassow, a pheasant-sized, mostly ground-dwelling bird native to the New World tropics, but it was in the shade and trying its best to keep a low profile.

The best places to watch birds at the zoo were the large mammal enclosures, namely the zebra and rhino paddocks. The zebras share their quarters with a magnificent pair of African crowned cranes. The cranes did keep their distance, though, so it is thanks to the 20X zoom feature on my Canon PowerShot SX10 IS that I was able to capture even reasonably good images.

The variety in the texture of plumage on the crowned crane is truly astounding. Smooth wing feathers typical of most birds, but also coarse, straw-like feathers that make up the “pom-pom” atop its head, and the streaming plumes on its chest.

Also in the zebra pen was a flock of chicken-sized guinea fowl, decked out in snazzy polka dots.

Yes, this one is pecking through zebra waste products. No accounting for taste, apparently. These birds are also native to Africa.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the rhino enclosure contained some of the largest birds on exhibit at the zoo, including a pair of kori bustards. These are among the largest birds capable of flight.

Standing between two and three feet tall (nearly one meter), and weighing in at an average of over 25 pounds as adults (males up to 18 kg), they are formidable predators of reptiles, insects, and small mammals on the African savanna. They also feed on berries and seeds.

What the marabou stork lacks in beauty it more than makes up for in size, as this was clearly the “king of the rhino enclosure.” Despite a clipped wing, this bird still managed to strut proudly through the paddock, standing prominently atop large rocks and other vantage points, and always keeping an eye out for a snack.

Interestingly, marabous are now more abundant in their native Africa than they were at the early part of the 20th century. Their rise in population is attributed mostly to a soaring human population and the organic waste we produce in the course of livestock production and agriculture in general. Adult male marabous can stand nearly 1.5 meters tall, and weigh over eight kilograms. Their wingspan is well over two meters.

I happened to be present for the feeding of the bustards and the stork near the end of the day (Reid Park Zoo closes at 4 PM), and boy was I in for a surprise. Stay tuned….

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reid Park Zoo

Reid Park in Tucson, Arizona is very much like Central Park in New York City. Both are mostly places to jog, picnic, and actively recreate, and both have a small zoo. I visited the Reid Park Zoo this past Valentine’s Day, and managed to at least catch a glimpse of many of its captive animals.

The zoo, celebrating its 40th birthday this year, occupies only a little more than seventeen acres, but an amazing diversity of fauna is packed into that space. This has created some concern when it comes to the elephants in particular, as they really don’t have enough room to roam. To that end, the zoo plans to tack on an additional seven acres for an expansion entitled “Expedition Tanzania.” Three acres are designated for the elephants alone, and will include mud wallows, and pools and streams. The cost of the expansion is estimated at about $8.5 million. Fundraising is progressing well, and construction could start as early as this year.

The elephants are certainly a major attraction, as are the two white rhinos, but the official mascot of the zoo is the giant anteater. This is one of my favorite animals, too. They look about as improbable as a platypus, but their fur is beautifully marked.

Their bushy tail is about as long as the rest of them, and they walk on their knuckles, more or less, so as not to break their very long front claws. They use their claws to pry open termite mounds in their native plains of Brazil. Those mounds can be as hard as concrete, but slightly more brittle.

The most recent addition to the zoo is a baby Grevy’s zebra, born on January 30, 2010.

He did put in an appearance while I was there, frolicking in the large yard that he shares with mom and pop, two African crowned cranes, and a small flock of Guinea fowl. Yes, no question, he sure is cute.

Another show I was privileged to see was a full-blown courtship display by a peacock, not a stone’s throw away from me. He was so close that I couldn’t back away far enough to get a good shot of his entire glory. It was a fitting end to a Valentine’s Day at the Reid Park Zoo.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Weird Bird News

How convenient for my blogs that this week in “News of the Weird,” by columnist Chuck Shepherd, there should be a story about ”bugs” and a story about birds. The headline “Slut Birds” was enough to start me laughing before I read another word:

”A team of researchers led by a University of Connecticut professor, writing recently in the ornithology journal The Auk, declared the local saltmarsh sparrow to be America’s most promiscuous bird, in that 95 percent of the females hook up with more than one male during a mating season. The likelihood that any two chicks in a nest had the same father was only 23 percent, and in one-third of the nests, all chicks had different fathers. The researchers hypothesized that the frequent flooding of Connecticut’s marshes destroys so many nests that non-choosy females have gained an evolutionary advantage. (A wren in Australia and a parrot in Madagascar are said to be comparably promiscuous.)

Hm-m-m, I wonder what excuses the slut wren and parrot were using, since "flooded nests” is already taken.

Actually, I don’t know if thatstory is as weird as the one I saw tonight on 60 Minutes that included a story on Arlan Galbraith, former president of Pigeon King, International. Galbraith touted the future of pigeon farming, claiming that pigeons would replace chickens in our collective poultry diet. He was persuasive enough to get plenty of investors and farmers on board in Canada and the United States, before “fear mongers” brought PKI to bankruptcy in June, 2008. Those “fear mongers” were people like David J. Thornton of CrimeBustersNow who saw through the charade and revealed PKI for the Ponzi scheme it truly was.

It never ceases to amaze me how gullible people can be or, on the other hand, how incredibly convincing con artists can be. Maybe folks should have gotten a clue from the PKI headquarters being in Waterloo (Ontario), or that Galbraith was targeting the Amish in particular. Well, until my credit union is exposed as a con game, that is where all my “investments” will be.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Neighbor's Amaryllis

For much of the winter the desert here in Tucson looks dead, nothing but earthtones in brown and beige. How delightful that for awhile back in January my neighbors down the way had a big, bright potted flower on the balcony outside their front door. After a little internet searching I learned that it is a common ornamental plant called an “Amaryllis” or “Barbados Lily.”

There can be come confusion over the name of this exotic-looking blossom because it is not in the genus Amaryllis. Instead, it belongs to the genus Hippeastrum. According to various online sources, the plant is native to Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, and also some islands in the Caribbean. There are between fifty and ninety species, depending on where you go for information, and in the neighborhood of 600 hybrids. Most of the cultivars are produced in Holland and South Africa (where two Dutch growers moved in 1946), but some North American and Japanese horticulturists are making inroads into the market.

Hippeastrum sprouts from a bulb and has two growth phases, blooming in the winter months and producing foliage during the summer. Consequently, it has become an exceedingly popular indoor plant in temperate regions. Still not as popular as the poinsettias so abundant during the Christmas and Hanukkah holiday season, but perhaps their star is rising.

Prices and quality of Amaryllis vary, as learned from this wonderful blog entry at Plants Are the Strangest People. It is worth the brief read for the comments alone.

Shortly after I took these images, my neighbor took the plant away. Well, it was certainly lovely while it lasted, and it might spur me to start considering a houseplant or two. I could certainly use something to offset the “dead insect” atmosphere in my apartment.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

(Living) Gem Show

This weekend is probably the peak of the annual Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, easily the largest, most economically important tourist event of the year in southern Arizona. There are so many rocks, minerals, fossils, meteorites, sculptures, and other merchandise here that I’m surprised it doesn’t tip the Earth’s axis. The scale of the exhibition defies easy comparisons and quantification. It is difficult to find any other display that rivals the gem show for color and spectacle, but perhaps the Tucson Botanical Gardens has it in the form of its annual “Butterfly Magic” exhibit of live Lepidoptera.

There are stones and tourists here at the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show from all over the globe, but there are also live butterflies and moths from all over the world at the TBG. Rocks may glitter and gleam, but they don’t fly, or land delicately on you like the insects in the live butterfly exhibit.

Among the wonders of the butterfly show are metallic blue Morpho butterflies from the Latin American tropics.

Like a living geode, they usually conceal their beauty while perched with wings closed. The underside of their wings are colored in earthtones with spots and stripes.

Sharing its name with a stone of similar color, the Malachite, Siproeta stelenes, also hails from Mexico and Central America, but can also be seen in extreme southern Florida and south Texas.

Glasswing butterflies in the family Nymphalidae, subfamily Ithomiinae, have wings as transparent as the windows of any building. No silica here, just an absence of the scales that normally give butterflies their vibrant color patterns. Only the veins and edges are pigmented here, creating artistic panes.

Not to be outdone by their day-active counterparts, some moths have a subtle beauty all their own. By any standards the African moon moth, Argema mimosae, is a glamorous animal, with tails that stream like a comet or shooting star.

No meteorite fall at the end, but an equally ephemeral life. With no mouthparts to feed, these giant moths live for no more than a few days, just long enough to reproduce.

My friends in the meteorite-hunting world have given me a new appreciation for both extra-terrestrial and earth-borne geology, but it is still difficult not to choose the living over the inanimate. Whatever your own predilection, be sure to share that passion with others. It is a great way to make new friends and expand each other’s horizons.