Jim Cloer's Arizona Desert

Evergreens hunched against the wind . . . the haunting laugh of a canyon wren . . . a canopy of blue sky over the burning desert. This is wilderness a place that offers a superior kind of pleasure, where nature remains untarnished and undepleted . . .

Saturday, April 9, 2011

April 2011

“Be still and the earth will speak to you” --- Navajo proverb

Using all our senses we “listen” to nature speaking of spring. We smell the blooming plants, look for migrating birds and hear the mating call of the resident birds.

Well spring has sprung even without the spectacular wildflower show of last year. But there are plenty of other indicators.

Prickly Pear Flowers

Ocotillo Blossom

If we are looking for a flower to herald in spring the Ocotillo will bloom in April, even in the driest of years. The Ocotillo is a resident that can be relied on to bloom annually, even without leafing in particularly dry springs. Other spring blooms in dry years will include the yellow blossoms of the Palo Verde, Cat claw acacias and Mesquite trees. Also look for the blossoms of the Prickly pear and Cholla cactus. Toward the end of the month the blossoms of the Saguaro will appear luring in the White-winged dove.

Try standing quietly in the desert and listen as the Gambel’s quail which have broken up into mating pairs. During the rest of the year these gregarious birds join together in groups known
as coveys, which may total 20 or more individuals in fall and winter. They produce a location or assembly call, "ka-KAA-ka-ka," to locate a mate or other covey members, issuing the call most often in midmorning or late afternoon. They emit a distinct "chip-chip-chip" when alarmed. Once the female is on the nest you will see the male sitting on a perch in the vicinity issuing an “all clear” every 15-30 seconds.

Gambels' Quail

Of course you will hear many other birds staking out their territories, sounding alarms and advertizing for mates. Spring is a noisy time.

Another late April resident that becomes observable is the Round-tailed ground squirrel. First the mother pokes her head up to make sure none of their predators are about, and then the young come out to explore and play

The Round-tailed ground squirrel is most active during mornings and evenings, avoiding the most intense heat by retiring to its burrow at midday or seeking shade under a plant. It will climb into bushes not only to obtain leaves, but also to get out of the sun and off the hot sand. This species hibernates from late September or early October to early January. Its burrows have been found among shrubs, and occasionally in landscaped areas. They communicate using whistles. Their warning is a single whistle and causes the other animals in the area to run to their burrows and then look around.

Round-tailed Ground Squirell

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Naturalist View March 2011

Solving mysteries

I am often called upon to identify clues from nature. I remember a few years back when one of the visitors to our Saturday wildlife exhibit at Catalina State Park asked about some strange leathery eggs that they had found while hiking in the desert. They said that they had found several of different colors lying on the ground. Unable to identify them without seeing them the person said they would bring them in the following week. True to their word the following week they showed up clutching their find in a napkin. Now I tried to be diplomatic but it was really hard not to burst out laughing when I discovered the “eggs” were pellets from paintball guns.
Strange Eggs

I recently was asked about some teeth found in the mud around the lake. I had my suspicions but finding the proof was indeed an adventure, in fact my first guess was off, but I eventually found the answer. What was it? I think it would be more fun if you tried to figure it out. Here are the pictures. What kind of creature do you think they came from? E-mail your answers to jecloer@aol.com.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Mystery Teeth

What creature had these teeth

These strange looking teeth belong to the Grass Carp which inhabit the ponds on our golf course.

Naturalist View February 2011

Playing Chicken
Male Bobcat protecting its kill

I got a call from a neighbor a few weeks ago. She said that she was concerned about a large Bobcat that was hanging out by her back wall. Upon investigation I discovered that indeed there was a very large male Bobcat that had taken down a small doe just outside her property. I assured her that the Bobcat was no threat to her as long as it was left alone and that it would probably stay at its kill for several days to protect and feed on its prey. A day or two later I took my camera with telephoto lens to see if I could get a picture. I took a picture of the cat lying next to the kill. Then I decided to approach to see if I could get a closer shot. 

I crept toward the cat about ten feet keeping the Bobcat in my viewfinder. I suddenly noticed that the cat was also creeping forward. I stopped, so did my target. I took a picture thinking that the sound of the camera wound scare off the Bobcat. It didn’t! Surely the cat would turn and run if I got closer! I took several steps forward…so did the Bobcat!
So you want to play chicken
A growl…my pulse speeds up…I take a picture, a step (my last) and then I stand up straight. Ha… I won! The Bobcat turned to the side and disappeared into the brush. Had he taken just one more step, I definitely would have given way. Two nights later he showed up outside my sliding glass door to have his picture taken.
So you want to play again?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The House Guest

Something aroused Frank from his sleep. He glanced at his clock and noticed that it was 3 a.m., a time when he was usually sound asleep. What had wakened him - a noise, a movement or just a sense of some presence nearby? He lay quietly listening and trying to detect a sound or movement. He detected a scratching sound coming from under his bed. A minute or so later he definitely heard  something on his computer desk. Getting out of bed and flipping on the light, he spotted the source of the disturbance - a squirrel-sized animal with black eyes and a white spot on its otherwise black face. As the animal turned to run, Frank grabbed it by the tail. The visitor simply turned and looked at Frank. Frank then decided to let it go and call me in the morning.

When I got the call and listened to Frank’s description, I asked him if it could have been a skunk. Frank said “No, not a skunk. I know what a skunk looks like. Anyway, it ran into the bathroom, and I locked him in.” I called Dan Chase and told him to bring a net; we went to investigate. Upon opening the bathroom door, we were met with Spilogale gracilis or a Western Spotted Skunk. Apparently it had been living in Frank’s house for quite awhile and was not at all concerned about our presence. Trying to net this animal was not an option, since we did not want to get it stressed. Frank’s pet cat had recently died, and the skunk had found the bag of cat food and the water dish that were still out. Frank had even been in the habit of leaving his sliding glass door open during the good weather, so the cat could get in and out - the skunk took advantage of a good opportunity.
The House Guest

I explained to Frank that it was very fortunate that he had grabbed this animal by the tail since this prevented the animal from spraying. When threatened, this skunk will do a handstand and spray the offender from its anal scent glands. The squirrel-sized skunk is the smallest skunk in the southwest and the only one known to climb trees.  It is easily distinguishable from other skunks by its size and unique markings. We were able to use a large live trap and catch and remove it to a new location without incident. He was a beauty!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Naturalist View November and December 2010

If it looks like a pig and smells like a pig…….it must be a…
Collared PeccaryBetter known around here as …

The phone call came in from a lady who seemed very concerned.  She explained, “There is a sick baby pig by my front door”.  I asked her why she thought it was sick. She replied that it was all by itself, just lying there and not moving. I got her address and went to investigate. When I got to the house, I found no sign of anything on her front porch. She explained that it had gotten up and walked away. I asked her some other questions and determined that the pig was actually a javelina, since it was 2 to 3 feet long, it was hardly a baby. I asked if she knew if any of her neighbors had been feeding wildlife; she did not know of any. I told her that it is common for javalina, that are being fed by well intentioned people, to become pests since they have no real fear of people. I told her that if it returned to give me a call. Minutes after I returned home, the phone rang; wouldn’t you know, the javelina had returned. When I got back to her house, I found “Baby” taking a nap on her welcome mat.

I signaled for the lady to let me in the back door and then proceeded to open the front door, after prodding “Baby” it reluctantly walked down the walkway and settled down for a nap under a window by the front of the house. Since it was Sunday and I was not going to be able to call Game and Fish for a relocation permit, I advised the home owner to give me a call if this javalina was still around the following day and I left.

This could have been the end of the story, but there is more! The home owner had followed me out the door as I left her house to talk to some neighbors about the situation. Oh, yes, she did not shut her front door. “Baby” had been waiting for this opportunity. She found her way into the living room; lo and behold there was a basket of fruit and candy for guests. You can use your imagination for the rest of the story.

Though some people think javelina is a type of wild pig, they are actually members of the peccary family, a group of hoofed mammals originating from South America. Javelina are common in much of central and southern Arizona, including the the Tucson area, and occasionally as far north as Flagstaff. Javelina form herds of two to more than 20 animals and rely on each other to defend territory and protect against predators. They use washes and areas with dense vegetation as travel corridors. Javelina are most active at night, but they may be active during the day, especially during the cold winter months, in order to take advantage of the sun's heat
When alarmed, they can run off at speeds up to 21 mph.  While their eyesight is poor, peccaries have good senses of hearing and smell.  Groups have individual territories which overlap at focal points, such as watering holes. These territories are usually about a quarter square mile in size.  The inner territory (non-overlapping part) of each group is characterized by smell.  Males often mark rocks and trees near resting areas using their dorsal glands.  At these well-used resting spots and along the territorial boundaries are defecation sites which are visited by the whole herd.  The group is completely closed, with no new members ever being accepted. One in every ten offspring born is rejected from the group. As you can see, this becomes a problem for the rejected offspring as it will never be accepted by any group.

Babe Looking for a Treat

Occasionally one is brought into a rescue center. One adopt me as its “herd”; I must have smelled just right. I named it Babe. It followed me around as I was cleaning cages and feeding the animals at the Center; whenever I sat down, it would lie at my feet and take a nap.  Javelina have several vocalizations, including snorts, squeals, barks, and rumbling growls. These sounds have different meanings, most of which are warnings if you are close enough to hear them. The javelina are very protective of their young and will not hesitate to charge any threat.

Babe asleep

Family group:Herds of 2-20 animals, with herds up to 54 individuals being recorded.
Diet:Roots, fruits, tubers, grasses, leaves, eggs, carrion.
Main preditors:Coyote, puma, jaguar, bobcat.

Plains with brush, semi-deserts, and forests in southern North America, Central America, and northern South America.
These pig like creatures are characterized by presence of four-hoofed toes on the front feet, but only three on the hind feet (outer dewclaw absent); short, pig like snout; crushing molars; nearly straight and dagger like canines (tusks); harsh pelage with distinct "mane" from crown to rump; distinct musk gland on rump; distinct whitish collar across shoulder in adults.

In Arizona, javelina occupy the brushy semi desert where prickly pear is a conspicuous part of the flora. They are commonly found in dense thickets of prickly pear, chaparral, scrub oak; also in rocky canyons where caverns and hollows afford protection. 

Through exaggerated tales of the javelina’s ferociousness, it has been charged that peccaries will kill or injure dogs. It is true that encounters between peccaries and untrained dogs usually end with dead or crippled dogs. It is also true that in these battles the dog is always the aggressor, and any animal will defend its life to the best of its ability when attacked.

Javelina are chiefly herbivorous and feed on various cacti, especially prickly pear, mesquite beans and other succulent vegetation. Terrestrial insects also are eaten.
I’ve got to say that the pesky part of having javelina around has much improved due to the larger trash containers now provided by waste management. Before, we could count on our units being “trashed” by javelina who knew when trash day was.

Possible Conflicts with Humans and Pets

Javelina will likely visit occasionally if you live in Saddlebrooke near a wash or other natural desert. Javelina usually cause only minor problems for people by eating a few plants. However, people should never feed javelina. This can cause them to become regular visitors and lose their fear of people, creating problems for the neighborhood. Javelina occasionally bite humans, but incidents of bites are almost always associated with people providing the javelina with food. They can inflict a serious wound. Javelina may act defensively when cornered or to protect their young. Dogs, coyotes and cougar are natural predators of javelina.

What Should I Do?

If javelina have become a problem or have caused property damage, see the suggestions below to deal with the situation. Do your part to keep javelina healthy and wild because their removal almost always means death. Work with your neighbors to achieve a consistent solution to the problem.

To discourage a javelina you should immediately:

*       Scare off animals by making loud noises (bang pots, yell, stomp on the floor, etc.); throwing small rocks in their direction; or spraying with water from a garden hose.

*       If the animal is confined, open a gate, have all people leave the area, and allow it to leave on its own. If it is still there the following day, contact the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

*    If you see javelina while walking your dog, avoid going near the javelina and quickly take your dog in a different direction.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Naturalist View October 2010

The Deal

It is a few minutes before 7 a.m. as a blue SUV pulls into the gas station at the corner of Oracle and Ina. Pulling up to the pumps, a scruffy, older man with a gray beard and wearing a black western hat gets out and starts filling his car with the cheap stuff. He looks around as if searching for someone. Finished filling his tank he pulls the SUV next to some bushes that screen the car from the busy intersection. He gets out of the car and opens the rear door and sits on back bumper. He sips on a cup of coffee still scanning the area as if expecting someone. The gas station attendant in the service booth begins to take notice.

A few minutes later a rather beat up yellow and white pick-up truck pulls up and parks just ahead of the SUV. The driver, a large, tough looking 40’ish man gets out as the man in the black hat approaches him. A few words are exchanged and the driver of the pickup returns to the vehicle and pulls out a small Styrofoam cooler and approaches the man in the black hat. He pulls a clear plastic ziplock bag that is filled with what appears, to the gas station attendant, a white substance. The station attendant is now devoting his full attention to the scene outside. The man in the black hat pulls out a roll of money and exchanges it for the zip lock bag. Both men return to their vehicles and drive off in opposite directions. The gas station attendant can’t believe what he just saw and then realizes that he did not even get the license plate of either car. He wonders “should I call 911?”

I, on the other hand, am saying to myself as I drive my blue SUV back to Saddlebrooke, “It was sure nice of Tom to meet me halfway with those frozen mice. Two hundred mice will last me for a while. Now I can get home in time to write the October ‘Naturalist View’ article.”

Tuna in the Desert?

Early October is the last chance to harvest those prickly pears, because the blossoms you saw in May that turned to green pears in June, pink in July and purple in August will be gone by November. “Where do they go?” you ask. Well, of course, I pick a few buckets to feed my box turtles and Desert tortoise and  make prickly pear ice tea, jam, syrup etc. But, that does not account for the hundreds of thousands, yea maybe millions of pears that were here in August. And even if the rest of you who are reading this indulged in making tasty Prickly Pear Margaritas, it still wouldn’t account for all those pears. Of course we humans are not the only ones that have a taste for the “Tuna” of the desert. Tuna is the Mexican name for the fruit of the cactus.
During daylight hours, you may observe many birds, such as finches and thrashers, feeding on the ripe fruit. In fact, as the fruit starts to ferment, some birds seem to indulge a little too much. This fruit is also a favorite of box turtles and tortoises as well as Javalina, Coyotes, Ground and Rock Squirrels, Packrats Mice, Fox, Rabbits, Badgers, Coatis and even Deer. Some, such as the Chelonia (Turtles and Tortoises) and the Javalina have enzymes that can handle the spines and glochids (they are microscopic hairs called that will stick in your skin and drive you to distraction). Other animals have developed methods of removing most of these by brushing or rolling the pear to remove the spines.
Protect your skin during the harvesting, as well as the cleaning process of the cactus fruit by using tongs and rubber gloves. Once you have harvested the fruit, you will need to remove the glochids. I prefer burning the spines and glochids with my blow torch and a pair of BBQ tongs. It only takes moments of rotating the fruit in the flame and they are burned away. They can also be removed by cutting them away with a knife or peeling off the skin, of course you should wear good rubber gloves that should be disposed of afterwards. The native people of the area used limbs of the Desert Broom plant to brush the spines away and then rolled the fruit in dirt or sand. Once you have prepared the pears this way you can proceed safely to use the cactus fruit in many ways.

I usually make prickly pear syrup which can be used in many recipes.

Such as:

Prickly pear margaritas - Looks great! Tastes great! Be careful!

12 ounces crushed ice
8 ounces prickly pear syrup (recipe below)
1 ounce tequila
Combine ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.  Serve with a wedge of sliced lime. 

Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly Recipe

4 cups strained prickly pear tuna juice
6 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 package pectin

Wash and chop prickly pear tunas as previously instructed.  Cover chopped fruit with water even with level of tunas in pan.  Cook over medium heat for approximately 20 minutes.  Use cheesecloth and a colander to strain liquid from cooked prickly pear fruit. 
Combine strained prickly pear juice and lemon juice and cook over medium heat until solution is boiling.  Once boiling add sugar and pectin and stir constantly.  Continue to keep mixture at a rolling boil for two minutes, then remove pan from heat.  If canning jelly, ladle into sterilized jars and water bath can for 16 minutes.  Prickly pear jelly may take up to two weeks to gel inside the jars.  If using for fresh jelly, cool jelly and store covered in the refrigerator for up to one month.

Prickly pear syrup recipe
6 cups strained prickly pear tuna juice
6 cups white sugar
4 tbsp. lemon juice
Wash and chop prickly pear tunas after removal of spines.  Cover chopped fruit with water about 2 inches above level of tunas in pot.  Cook over medium heat for approximately 20 minutes.  Use cheesecloth and a colander to strain liquid from cooked prickly pear fruit.  This will make the strained juice thinner to increase production of the syrup without any decline in flavor. 
Combine strained prickly pear juice and lemon juice and cook over medium heat until solution is boiling.  Once boiling add sugar and stir constantly.  Keep at a rolling boil until all of the sugar is dissolved. Then remove pan from heat.  If canning syrup, ladle into sterilized jars and water bath can for 16 minutes.  If using syrup immediately, cool syrup and store covered in the refrigerator for up to one month.
Many more uses and recipes can be found online

A Puzzle

What is the connection between Prickly pear cactus, Aztecs and Betsy Ross?


Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus)

Cochineal is a traditional red dye of pre-Hispanic Mexico. This precious dyestuff was obtained not from a plant, but from an insect that lives its life sucking on a plant. The host plants are the flattened stems (pads) of prickly pear cacti (Opuntia), especially the species called nopales. The animal is a scale insect that manufactures a deep maroon pigment and stores this pigment in body fluids. Early Mixtec (Aztec and Mayan) Indians used indigo, derived from native legumes, for blues and cochineal for various shades of red.
Scale insects are lazy creatures. A cactus pad is colonized by a female, who produces some new females that settle around the mother. A female inserts the proboscis, a tube, into the pad for obtaining nourishment, and secretes a white, web-like, wax-based material over the area for camouflage and to prevent desiccation. Males are small and live for only a week, just long enough to mate with as many females as possible. I have noticed that in nature males all seem to have a similar role. Hmm.
Mixtexs and their successors in southern Mexico farmed cochineal so they could crush the insects and extract the red body fluids for dye. When Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they were fascinated by the intense scarlet color of cochineal dye, which was brighter and better than anything in the Old World. Textiles dyed with cochineal were shipped to Europe and became the rage; in fact, next to gold cochineal was the most desired import commodity from Middle America.
The red coats as in “the Red Coats are coming” and the red stripes in the first American flag sewn by Betsy Ross were made by fabrics dyed with Carmine. Carmine is the name of the color pigment obtained from the insect Dactylopius coccus (Cochineal) that lives on cacti from the genus Opuntia.

Red Food Coloring from Beetles?

The common food colorants cochineal and carmine (carminic acid) are indeed made from Central and South American ground beetles, cochineal. Aside from food, these pigments are also used in many cosmetics, shampoos and even fruit juice!

Maybe that’s more information than you wanted to know.

About Me

My photo
Saddlebrooke (Tucson), Arizona, United States
I am a retired school teacher from Monterey Bay Area in California. I now volunteer as naturalist at Arizona State Parks. I also work with a wildlife rehab center and I present natural history programs to the public.