Saturday, August 28, 2010

Flickr Photostream

I admit I might be cheating a little, but today I am re-directing you to my Flickr Photostream for some eye candy. Each of the new images there includes a little bit of information about the creature depicted, and/or the circumstances under which it was imaged. Hope you enjoy. I'll be back soon with additional posts.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Brandi Fenton Memorial Park

Brandi Fenton Memorial Park is a multi-use holding of the Pima County Natural Resources, Parks & Recreation agency. I paid a visit there on June 15, 2010 and found it to be much more than I had anticipated. At a little shy of 57 acres, it is also far larger in size than I imagined.

The park’s namesake was a bright and cheerful 13-year old who died tragically in a car accident in 2003. The centerpiece of the park reflects in its landscape and architecture the joys of this vibrant teenager: butterflies, art, and a caring . A butterfly garden, fountain, several sculptures, and inlaid artwork make for a very colorful and inspirational community resource.

There is an equal abundance of active recreation opportunities to complement the passive, relaxing, and introspective areas. A dog park, basketball courts, fitness stations, playground, and walking paths afford exercise for people and pooches; and there are even equestrian facilities.

Additionally, there are many interpretive signs explaining the historical Binghampton district where this park is located. Original buildings remain on the property and serve a variety of public functions, including a visitor center. A farming community dating back to 1875, Binghampton is on the National Historic Register as well. Demonstration gardens of crops grown in that era are planned for the park in the future.

Located at the intersection of Alvernon Way, Dodge Boulevard, and River Road just blocks north of the city of Tucson, Brandi Fenton Memorial Park is a great place to explore and exercise your “inner child” (or your real son or daughter if you have a family). I look forward to seeing how the park matures (it opened in 2005) in the coming years.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Night of the Toads

I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Invertebrates in Education and Conservation Conference in Rio Rico late last month, and participate in a couple of the spontaneous field trips that happen, especially after dark. One such excursion, led by my good friend Zack Lemann of the Audubon Institute Insectarium in New Orleans. We were looking for certain beetles, and had success, but reptiles and amphibians were also in abundance. Chief among those were toads.

We drove north from the conference headquarters in Rio Rico toward Madera Canyon, stopping at a service station at an exit in Green Valley. There, right by the interstate, we found the cactus longhorn beetles Zack was after, but there were also several Couch’s Spadefoots (Scaphiopus couchi) dining on the many insects drawn to the lights of the gas station.

Spadefoots are technically frogs in the family Pelobatidae. They lack the large parotoid glands of true toads (located just behind the eyes and visible as large, elliptical bulges). What truly sets them apart from other amphibians, however, is the dark, hardened tubercle on the underside of the heel of each hind foot. These “spades” help the animal dig into and out of the mud.

Couch’s Spadefoot is exceedingly tolerant of long dry spells, emerging during the soaking monsoon downpours that typically begin in early or mid-July here in the Sonoran Desert. They erupt from low-lying areas as those ditches and depressions fill with water and soak into the soil, softening it. The spadefoots have been buried fairly deep in the soil awaiting the rains.

Males call to females with a voice that has been likened to a “bleating sheep with a cold.” Real attractive. It works, though, at least on female spadefoots. Females lay eggs in the temporary puddles and the ova hatch twelve to twenty-four hours later. The tadpoles, in a race against the evaporation of their aquatic niche, metamorphose to miniature adults in as little as eight days. Before the mud dries and cracks, the spadefoots dig in. Underground they are able to tolerate at least a year without food or water until the rains once again return.

From Green Valley, our party moved on to a retirement community in the small town of Continental. The lights in the parking lots of the community attract many insects, and not surprisingly toads are wise to this fact. Under one light I found this Great Plains Toad, Bufo cognatus.

I am grateful that the toad was quiet, for I have read that the calls of males are lengthy, extremely loud, and likened to a jackhammer. Unlike spadefoots, members of the genus Bufo are true toads in the family Bufonidae, characterized by “warty” skin and those prominent parotoid glands. Otherwise, the life cycle and habits of the Great Plains Toad closely resembles that of Couch’s Spadefoot. The tadpoles take longer to mature, but the adult toads likewise spend the bulk of their lives underground awaiting heavy rains. They make the most of their time aboveground, eating a huge amount of insect and arachnid prey to get them through lean times.

Conspicuously absent from the landscape on this particular night (July 28-29) were the enormous Sonoran Desert Toads, Bufo alvarius that usually dominate the scene. Formerly known as the Colorado River Toad, this species has apparently been rendered extinct in much of the Colorado River corridor (along with the water which now does not even reach the Gulf of Mexico). These are huge animals, mature adults often measuring seven inches….in just about any direction so great is their girth. Some specimens would find a dinner plate a somewhat confining perch. They are not easy to photograph, either, as they turn away from flashes. I imaged this one in Picture Rocks.

Sonoran Desert Toads are nothing to trifle with, especially if you are a dog. They have incredibly toxic skin secretions. The hallucinogenic properties of those toxins are well-known to the medical community, too. Stupid people who engage in “toad-licking” get what they deserve. Pets that don’t know better can die from ingested toad toxins.

A really great online article about the Sonoran Desert Toad can be found here at The Firefly Forest website. Information about the other anurans (science-speak for “frogs and toads”) treated here can be found on the website of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Brennan, Thomas C. & Andrew T. Holycross. 2006. Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona. Phoenix: Arizona Game & Fish Department. 150 pp.
Hanson, Jonathan and Roseann. 1997. Fifty Common Reptiles & Amphibians of the Southwest. Tucson: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association. 63 pp.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Better to Hear You With

That passage from “Little Red Riding Hood” could apply as easily to Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, Corynorhinus townsendii, as it does to the Big Bad Wolf. This docile little creature is not nearly as menacing, however, and a true friend to farmers and other folks plagued by insects.

I was fortunate enough to discover this roosting individual inside an abandoned house in Brown Canyon on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona. Thanks to Philip Kline who had informed me of another species of bat in the same house. That bit of knowledge prompted me to venture into what had to be Hanta Virus Central to try my own luck. I found the solitary Townsend’s Big-eared Bat as a result.

Townsend’s Big-eared Bat occurs chiefly west of the Rocky Mountains from southern British Columbia through Mexico, but isolated populations in the Ozark Plateau and Appalachian Mountains are not thriving. Like most bats, this species is incredibly sensitive to any disturbance during hibernation in caves, mine shafts, and similar locations.

Those big ears come in very handy when the bat is hunting. Most insect-eating bats use echolocation to pinpoint their prey in flight, homing in on the audible signals bouncing off their moving target. Big-eared bats have raised this hunting style to an art form, and few moths can escape these nimble fliers.

This species roosts singly during the day in the summer months, but individuals cluster together during winter. Mating happens in late autumn or early winter, and each female gives birth to a single offspring in May or June. Maternity colonies can include several dozen to a few hundred females.

Look for this species in desert scrub or dry pine forest habitats for the most part. Note that many references still list it by its older scientific name, Plecotus townsendii. Besides the extra long ears, often folded back as the one ear in the image above shows, this bat is recognized by the pair of glandular bulbs that rise above the nostrils.

Additional sources of information include this great page by Texas Parks & Wildlife, and this page from Pima County government that likely addresses the subspecies imaged above since Brown Canyon is in the Baboquivari Mountains (pronounced Bab-o-KEEV-er-ee).

Friday, August 6, 2010

Brown Canyon

Last Tuesday, August 3rd, I had the privilege of joining my friends Philip Kline, Margarethe Brummermann, and Fred Heath in Brown Canyon on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in western Pima County, Arizona. I also made new friends in Ken Kertell, Jake Mohlmann, and a couple from Cincinnati: John and Samantha.

Recent rains left Brown Canyon anything but “brown.” Wildflowers, butterflies, and dragonflies all added dashes of color to this unique landscape. In fact, reds, pinks (like the Fendler’s Globemallow below), oranges, and yellows were among the dominant colors of the surprisingly lush blooms of flowers.

There was still water in the upper reaches of the canyon, and a succession of pools in the scoured bedrock were patrolled by dragonflies including the Filagree Skimmer, a Giant Darner, and this Meadowhawk (Sympetrum sp.).

Most of those on this trip were looking for birds and butterflies and they were richly rewarded. Fifty-two species of butterflies and skippers were observed, including this Fatal Metalmark, Calephelis nemesis.

The canyon itself is very scenic, and steeped in a rich human history. Buildings, rusting cattle tanks, and even an old windmill are strewn throughout the landscape, and an old road and rock walls run parallel to the streambed. Not all the human habitations are derelict, however, as there is a very nice environmental education center complete with lodging for visitors.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is quite serious about regulating tourist traffic in Brown Canyon, and it cost our party $40 to visit for the day. We had to obtain a code for the keypad that opens the gate, and it took two tries to get all three of our vehicles through before the gate closed automatically behind us!

I heartily recommend a visit to this wonderful area, but strongly suggest that you watch the weather reports and make your trip after a good monsoon rainfall if you want to see the best of the flora and fauna. Remember to take plenty of water, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a broad-brimmed hat for maximum comfort during your hike.

Monday, August 2, 2010

News Flash

I will be starting a new, part-time job shortly at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. My title will be "Assistant Butterfly Curator" for the Butterfly Magic exhibit of live butterflies that runs from October through April. Elizabeth Willott, Curator of Butterflies, will be my supervisor there. I am very much looking forward to learning how to better train and manage volunteers, which will account for most of my duties.

I am still actively seeking full-time work online, in media, and museums, but am very grateful to TBG for extending me this offer. I will still have time to continue freelance work as well.