Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Bat Echoes

Bats are such interesting little creatures. They seem like some sort of bird species gone awry, but they are actually beautifully designed mammals.  During early summer walks, we often see one or more bats, fluttering erratically through the sultry air.

Many bats can navigate and track their food in total darkness using echolocation, the process of emitting inaudible high pitched sonar (10-20 beeps per second) and detecting the returning waves. When the sonar bounces off of nearby objects, the bat adjusts its course accordingly and can close in on a flying insect with perfect precision. Some bats even use their wings to create the sonar. Did you know that the scientists who developed sonar and radar in machines like submarines got their ideas from studying echolocation design in bats?

There are other animals who live, move and feed in low light conditions who also use echolocation.  Animals like whales dolphins, shrews and some birds depend on this specialized design to survive.

A friend taught us how to have a little fun with our bat friends and see echolocation in action by blowing a quick puff of air in their direction. In so doing, we are sending a wave directing them to quickly change direction or risk crashing into us.

Watch for bats in the early evenings. Remember that there are only a few species of bats that feed on animal blood (often called Vampire bats) but none of them live in the United States.

To see bats in Phoenix, visit the Maricopa County flood control tunnel at 40th Street and Camelback Road.  The bats use the tunnel as a day roost.  Go at sunset to see them exit the tunnel for a night of feeding. Find wonder in the early evening sky.

KQED - These Whispering Walking Bats Are On to Something

Learn More Resources:

Field Museum - Do All Bats Echolocate?

Arizona Bat Fact Sheets
Sonoran Desert Museum - Bat Species Fact Sheets

Phoenix Bat Cave

Be A Bat Detective!

Bat Species

Ask a Biologist - ASU

Image -

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Cooper's Hawk

Our desert neighborhood is full of bird activity right now. Every morning we wake to a cacophony of sound and see darting motion at every window as birds zip past, frantically carrying out their spring time business.  It is not uncommon to see small and mid-sized birds searching the ground for nesting materials and tasty morsels to eat.

What is uncommon is waking up to see a large hawk perched on our small copper reflection pool, surveying the world with beady, yellow eyes. It's also unusual for any bird to hang around for several hours while so much activity is swirling around it, but that is exactly what happened this morning. After capturing some images and admiring this striking visitor, I grabbed my bird book and began the identification process. Mercifully, it stayed long enough for me to take a good, long look.

Judging from the hooked beak and powerful build, this bird is obviously a bird of prey.  It is actually one of the fastest flying birds in the world, known for its great skill in navigating tree tops at high speeds while chasing other birds. It was my first close up look at a Cooper's Hawk, and in this case, a juvenile with mottled brown streaks and prominent yellow eyes. This species of hawk experiences a change of eye color as they mature, from pale yellow and even grey, to orange and blood red.  I am still researching to understand the benefits of eye color changes.

Cooper's Hawks are not compassionate hunters.  They prey on other birds and finish them off by repeatedly squeezing them with their talons.  They have also been known to drown their prey by holding them under water until they stop struggling. During nesting season the smaller male is responsible for meal delivery and is perfectly designed for swift flight and tight maneuvering to accomplish the task.  His smaller, lighter body coupled with long tail feathers allow this stealthy hunter to glide through an obstacle course of tree limbs with great agility.

Nictitating Membrane or Third Eyelid
Like most other birds, Cooper's Hawks have a third eyelid called a Nictitating Membrane.  This semi- transparent membrane slides across the eye horizontally or diagonally and not only helps to lubricate the eyes, but provides protection from wind, dust and rain when the hawk is on the wing... amazing design for sure.

As you track birds this spring, notice the unique design features that make them each successful desert dwellers. If you were a bird of prey, what physical and ability traits would you want to possess?

References and Resources
All About Birds - Cooper's Hawk
All About Birds - Silent Alert
Hawks Aloft Blog
AskAnNaturalist - Sharp Shinned or Cooper's Hawk
eBird - Identifying Cooper's Hawks
Avian Recon - Cooper Hawk Eye Color

Images: Sharon Pegany

Monday, March 26, 2018

Desert Wonder Tracker Meet Up #3 - Granite Mountain Loop Trail

Calling all Curious Desert Wonder Trackers!

What: Trek around Granite Mountain through a beautiful area of huge boulders and healthy saguaro cactus stands over a fairly smooth trail.
 We will stop as needed along the way with Sharon leading and Paul following to allow each trekker to set his/her own pace. The trail is 6 miles with very little climbing.

When: Wednesday, March 28 - 3:00 to Sunset

Where: Granite Mountain Loop Trailhead
Directions: East on Dynamite to 136th Street. Turn left onto 136th and travel north to the parking lot for Granite Mountain Trailhead.  The lot aligns with Lone Mountain Rd, is marked by a brown sign and is located right under the power lines seen from 136th Street. Turn left into the parking lot.

What to Bring: We will be traveling over some rocks and loose soil, so good shoes with good tread are a must. Most of the trail is fairly level, but if having a walking stick or poles helps you, bring them. Bring plenty of water and snacks. I encourage trekkers to carry a backpack or fanny pack so that hands are free. I have an extra backpack and we can also pack for each other as needed. Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, camera, binoculars, etc. 

What to Expect: This is a gorgeous untouched stretch of desert and as we circle around the northern edge, it is easy to imagine what this area looked like before development. The trail gently rises and falls with no difficult climbing. We will keep our eyes open for creatures who come out in the golden afternoon light. If we are lucky, we may hear the Elf Owl, who should be returning to the area to nest. No worries, Paul will handle any triangular headed, slit eyed friends we encounter:) Plan to rest as needed, eat, photos, etc. 

So that we know to wait for you, please let me know if you plan to join us for this trek. See you on the trail!

McDowell Mountain Preserve - North Area Map

Friday, March 23, 2018

Crepuscular Animals

Curve Billed Thrasher at Twilight
I love new, interesting words, don't you? When reading about snakes found in Arizona, the word  "crepuscular" appeared in the text, which of course triggered my overactive wonder muscle. I  had never heard this delightful adjective, used to describe creatures who are active primarily during the most glorious time of day... twilight...gentle, soothing twilight. Not quite nocturnal or diurnal, the animals who prefer this time are unique.

Twilight is a golden package of fleeting moments, found like book ends on each side of the day.  In the morning, it seems to embody the beauty and hope of a new fresh day, and in the evening, it gently wraps the day in a quiet, ethereal light, spilled alongside deep shadows across the landscape.  It is a time for seeing and hearing animals in a way unlike any other. Many photographers prefer the soothing, natural light that descends in the hour near twilight, a time when our cameras seem to do their best work.

One notable crepuscular desert dweller is the Javelina, or Collard Peccary.  I have only seen them during twilight hours. Unless sick, javelinas will travel in bands of 6 - 12 animals led by a dominant male. They have many incredible design features, such as their ability to eat prickly pear, spines and all. Javelinas derive most of their water from the plants they eat, so juicy prickly pear are among their favorite.  Watch for prickly pear plants that look like they have been torn versus cut or barrel cacti that have been overturned with the flesh scooped about like a tunnel into the underside.

 Javelinas are not considered dangerous if left alone, but an entire band can be aggressive and unpredictable, and if provoked, may attack when there are young or wounded among their members. They also have terrible eyesight, and use their sense of smell to communicate, so you will usually smell the musky scent of a javelina before you see one. They have several scent glands, which are located below each eye and on their back/rump. The glands release a strong odor when marking territory, members of their group, or when they become alarmed or excited.

The hour leading up to evening twilight is my favorite time to trek in the desert.  The harsh mid-day sunlight softens into a warm glow, and as the air cools, a playful breeze carries the sound of owl hoots and cricket songs. Bats and Nighthawks dance overhead, cotton tailed rabbits and other small mammals disappear into the shadows like children heading inside after a long day of play. Although seen other times of the day, Bobcats, Black Tailed Rabbits, as well as some snakes and birds are also considered crepuscular.  Many snakes are nocturnal during the hot summer, crepuscular in the spring and fall.

As you trek at twilight, watch for interesting crepuscular creatures, but remember that it is their feeding time, so try not to disturb them.  In the dim light, gaze with wonder at the unique happenings found only at twilight.

References and Resources
Earth Sky - What Exactly is Twilight?
Animal Sake
Desert USA - Collared Peccary
A-Z Animals - Collard Peccary
National Park Service - Javelina

Images: Sharon Pegany

Cultivate Wonder... Discover Design

Spot the International Space Station Alert!

Scottsdale, Arizona

Time: Friday, March 23 @ 8:16 p.m.
Visible: 4 minutes
Max Height: 48 degrees
Appears: 10 degrees above WSW
Disappears: 43 degrees above N

If you do not live in the Scottsdale area, go to Spot the Station to enter your location. You can also set up an auto alert that will send you an email when the station will be flying over your area.

Remember the International Space Station (ISS) circles the earth every 90 minutes.  It travels 17,500 miles per hour, which gives the crew 16 sunrises and sunsets every day. You can learn more about the ISS on the NASA International Space Station site.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Gopher Snake or Rattlesnake?!!!

Watch your step! Our reptile friends are apparently out in full force.  Today, we were out hunting for interesting rocks with our rock-hounding niece Emily and inadvertently came upon a long snake stretched out across our path.  Our first reaction was to stop, back away and mentally run through our internal rattlesnake identification checklist. Fortunately, this long, limber snake had a pointy head and tail, as well as round pupils.  Here in the west, it is commonly known as a Gopher Snake, but is closely related to and often called a Bull Snake.

Due to their length, coloring and markings, this non-poisonous snake is often mistaken for a Rattlesnake. Gopher Snakes and Rattlesnakes both help keep rodent populations under control and are essential for the health of the desert eco-system. As a desert dweller, it is important to learn the differences between a venomous Rattlesnake and a non-venomous Gopher Snake.  One is helpful in your outdoor landscape, and the other is better suited to the open desert.

Rattlesnakes have triangular heads, with facial heat sensing pits that look like nostrils.
Gopher Snakes have narrow, rounded heads, although if threatened, they can flatten their heads to mimic a Rattlesnake.

Rattlesnakes have vertical, slit pupils, like a cat.
Like most non-venomous snakes in the US, Gopher Snakes have rounded pupils

Rattlesnakes have an ornate cluster of rattles on the tail which grows every time an old skin is shed. . Young rattlers do not have a "rattle" until they shed.
Gopher Snakes have a pointy tail, but because they mimic rattlers, it may be hard to see their tail if they are vigorously shaking it.

Rattlesnakes are generally bulkier with a thick middle that tapers on both ends.
Gopher Snakes can grow much longer than Rattlesnakes, up to 8 feet, whereas Rattlers usually top out at about 4 feet. Gopher snakes are also slimmer and more limber looking than Rattlers.

No matter what kind of snake you encounter in your tracking adventures, always leave them alone. Even the non-venomous Gopher Snake can strike with a painful bite. However, most snakes are content to slip away without an encounter and will only bite if provoked or surprised.   These amazingly designed creatures are a treat to see in their native habitat if we use caution and give them plenty of space.  When we track wonder in the wild, it is up to us to diligently watch where we place our feet and hands.  As you move across the trails this spring and summer, remember to track wild wonder with great awe, but also great caution.

References and Resources
Reptiles of Arizona
Live Science - Gopher Snake Facts
Sciencing - How to Identify Baby Rattlesnakes

Images: Emily Richardson and Sharon Pegany

Cultivate Wonder... Discover Design

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Nesting Season

Cactus Wren nest built in an ideal location - among the prickly arms of a healthy Saguaro

Ahhh, nesting season in the Sonoran Desert. From darting Hummingbirds to mysterious Great Horned Owls, the bird world is frantically preparing to welcome the next generation. It is not uncommon to see birds of all types picking at the ground or flying to and fro with a mouthful of building materials. Most birds only build nests for brooding and raising their young, and abandon them once the little ones have learned to fly, although some species build a breeding nest and separate roosting nests.

Birds are very resourceful when it comes to nest building.  Some make elaborate luxury dwellings
complete with roof and welcoming entrance. Others move in to old nests abandoned by others.  Still others find refuge in the holes of cactus, trees or even burrows in the ground. Some are notorious nest stealers and others seem to slop their nests together as though the thought of where to put the eggs hadn't occurred to them. Hummingbirds use spider web to weave a tiny sticky nest, then cover it with leaves or lichen. Some birds even go through the extra work of building dummy nests to give the female options or discourage other birds from nesting in the area. The ingenious nest designs of each species suit them perfectly and serve their purpose.

Look for nests in unlikely places.
This time of year, take time to watch the birds.  What are they doing? Where are they going? Do you see patterns of behavior? Follow a bird's movements and you may discover a nest. Remain at a safe distance or the birds may become spooked and move on.  It you notice that they seem to be aware of your presence or abandon their activity, you know you have moved too close. If you find an abandoned nest, study it without touching it as birds are notorious for carrying disease. Try to imagine how a handless bird constructed it.

No matter where you live, nesting birds are not far. Enjoy tracking them and savoring a unique peek into the most wondrous and mysterious of designs...  new, perfectly formed and functioning life!

References and Resources

Images: Sharon Pegany

Cultivate Wonder... Track Design

Wake Up Sleepheads!

Desert spring is in the air.  Bird and insect sounds are louder. Plants are showing off their new tender spring green growth, and each morning, there is definitely a soothing warmth chasing the night chill away. Yet in the desert, there is one tell tale sign that signals the coming of spring more than any other... the appearance of reptiles. These cold-blooded creatures have been hibernating through the cooler months and a series of warm days will cause them to begin to stir. It's their time.

The first reptiles to appear are the small lizards.  Due to their size, their body temperature warms and cools more rapidly, so they can warm up and get moving easier than the big guys. This week, we noticed a marked increase in small lizards lounging on the sun-warmed rocks who skitter away at the slightest intrusion.

Hibernation is one of those perplexing design mysteries found in the natural world.  Why do some creatures have the ability to slip into an efficient energy saving mode for several months when others have to store food caches, migrate or find some other crafty way to tough it out when food supplies dwindle? 

In the case of lizards and other "cold-blooded" or ectothermic* creatures, their bodies are dependent on the outside temperature to regulate internal temperature and fuel their metabolism. Instead of getting most of their energy from the food they eat like mammals do, cold blooded animals are energized by the warmth of the sun.  Their muscles are triggered by a chemical reaction that is fast in warm weather and slower in cold weather. Cold blooded, or ectothermic animals are usually elongated or flat in design, allowing heat to be exchanged with the surrounding environment more efficiently. 

The chemical process design in ectothermic animals is fascinating. At the cellular level, water around each cell can freeze, but due to a flow of glucose into the cell, the fluid inside the cell does not freeze, almost like it has been injected with a natural anti-freeze! Animals like frogs can hibernate at temperatures below freezing and still survive. 

The next time you see a lizard lounging in the sun, remember that this well-designed creature is not interested in sporting a tan, but rather in getting an energy boost! Observe his sleek elongated body which can be quickly warmed through by the heat of the rock underneath and the sun overhead. Brilliant design! 

Ectothermic  - Of or relating to an organism that regulates its body temperature largely by exchanging heat with its surrounding environment.

References and Resources

Arizona-Sonora Museum - Diurnal or Nocturnal Hide and Seek
BBC Nature Wildlife - Hibernation 
American Chemical Society - How Animals Survive Temperature Extremes

Image: Sharon Pegany

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Western Screech Owl

This week, we had the pleasure of tracking wonder with British Columbia's wildlife photographer Anthony Bucci. Anthony has an amazing talent for tracking and photographing North America's owls and was recently in the southwest to enjoy some of our local birds and owls.  One owl common to our area is the Western Screech-Owl. True to form, Anthony was able to find this nesting owl and create some amazing photos, giving us a glimpse of the little owl you have probably heard without knowing it.

Western Screech-Owls are small, about the size of a football.  Their feathers are brownish-grey, with lots of variation, which help them blend into their woodland or desert environment. They are nocturnal, coming out to hunt small rodents and insects later in the day and evening.

Adult Western Screech-Owls nest almost exclusively in tree and cactus cavities. They tend to remain in their nesting area year round, so there is a chance to see them even after the spring nesting season. This owl is quite common in the desert so several owls may be living in the same area, defending small nesting territories, but sharing a broader home territory.

Get in the habit of glancing at the holes in saguaro cactus plants.  The holes usually appear dark, but when you notice a lighter colored or blocked hole, take a closer look.  It just might be one of our small owls watching you move past their hangout. Listen for the "bouncing ball" call in which the sounds become closer together like the sound of a ball as it bounces closer and closer to the ground before coming to a stop.  Learn to engage all your senses, letting them pick up on the subtleties that will lead you to pure wonder.

References and Resources
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
The Owl Pages
Anthony Bucci Facebook
Anthony Bucci Flickr
Anthony Bucci National Geographic

Image: Sharon Pegany

As a side note, the Western Screech-Owl looks just like the Whiskered Screech-Owl, except for the color of their beaks.  The Western Screech-Owl has a black beak with a tiny bit of ivory on the very tip, whereas the Whiskered Screech-Owl's beak is completely ivory colored. Both can be found in Arizona, although the Whiskered Screech-Owl is not as common.

Cultivate Wonder... Discover Design

Monday, March 5, 2018

March Desert Wonder Meet Up #1

Calling all Curious Desert Wonder Trackers!

What: Trek to Tom's Thumb through a beautiful area of huge boulders and healthy saguaro cactus stands over a fairly smooth trail. This trail makes a steep elevation climb of about 1,000 feet, but promises wonderful views along the way. We will stop as needed along the way with Sharon leading and Paul following to allow each trekker to set his/her own pace. The trail is nearly 5 miles round trip.

When: Monday, March 5 - 3:30 to Sunset

Where: Tom's Thumb Trailhead 
There are restrooms but NO WATER at the trailhead.
DirectionsFrom Scottsdale Rd or Pima Rd, turn East onto Happy Valley Rd. Proceed about 2 miles past Alma School and turn right (East) onto Ranch Gate. Proceed to the end of Ranch Gate and then turn right (South) onto 128 St and you’ll arrive at the trailhead in less than a mile.

What to Bring: We will be traveling over steep terrain with loose soil, so good shoes with good tread are a must. This trail is a good one for a walking stick or poles to help with stability. Bring plenty of water and snacks. I encourage trekkers to carry a backpack or fanny pack so that hands are free. I have an extra backpack and we can also pack for each other as needed. Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, camera, etc.

What to Expect: The hike starts out gradually climbing toward a canyon where the trail climbs steeply up a series of switchbacks.  There are places to stop and catch your breath while taking in the view. Switchbacks continue on to a section where the trail is fairly level before starting a second series of switchbacks. We will keep a steady pace to reach the monolith (Tom's Thumb) where we can rest and look for Prairie Falcons or Swifts who nest on the area's lofty cliffs and crevices.  

So that we know to wait for you, please let me know if you plan to join us for either trek. See you on the trail!


McDowell Sonoran Conservancy - Tom's Thumb
McDowell Mountain Preserve - North Area Map

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Jack Rabbit Ears

Black Tailed Jack Rabbit

This morning was cool and windy.  I took off before sunrise to see if I could spot any interesting creatures starting their day or finishing their night hunts.  As the sun began to spread its light and warmth across the landscape, all was still except for the early morning bird calls. As I turned to start for home, a Black Tailed Jack Rabbit burst from behind a boulder and bounded off through the brush.

In our area, we see oodles of cotton tailed rabbits, but spotting the large muscular hare known as a Jack Rabbit is a little more unusual. Jack rabbits are actually not rabbits, but hares, and the two are completely different species. Jack Rabbits are fun to observe.   Jacks can jump up to 10 feet and run at 40 miles per hour! It is comical to see them bouncing over the landscape like a Loony Tunes character.

Jack rabbits do tend to hang out in large open areas.  I have noticed that if I see one in an area, there are probably more and the abundance of rabbit droppings seems to confirm my theory. There are five species of jack rabbit found in the desert. Two of the most common are the Black Tailed and the Antelope.  Antelope Jacks are slightly larger and have ears edged in white, whereas the Black Tailed Jack has ears tipped in black as well as black on the tail, hence the name.

Jacks are known for their huge ears, which not only give them excellent hearing, but serve to help cool the jack by releasing heat from the large surface. The skin on their ears is very thin and full of blood vessels. During the hot part of the day, a jack rabbit will retreat to the shade where the slightly cooler air will cause blood vessels in their ears to widen, allowing more blood to flow to their ears. Some of the resulting heat in the ears will move into the cooler air, ultimately cooling the hot rabbit too.  Interestingly, rabbits don't pant and sweat as much as some other animals do, which helps to preserve precious internal fluid. The jack rabbit's cooling system design is perfect for a desert dweller.

This week, watch for small mammals in open areas and washes. Let their hippity, hoppity, scrambling ways cause you to wonder.

References and Resources

Desert USA
Animalia - What Adaptations Help Jackrabbits Stay Cool?
Wonderopolis - What is the Difference Between and Rabbit and a Hare?
Biomimicry Institute - Large Ears Used to Cool Off

Images: Sharon Pegany

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fox Sighting

The Sonoran Desert is enjoying a cool spell, providing gorgeous weather for an afternoon trek in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.  Three of us met up to trek out to Balanced Rock and marvel at the towering saguaros on the way.  On our return, we stopped to enjoy the noisy chatter of two ground squirrels, when a sharp-eyed trekker spotted large mammal movement below the trail.

At first, we thought it was a juvenile coyote, but there was something different about it... more delicate and angular, with enormous ears. Turns out it was a beautiful little gray fox.

Foxes are nocturnal, so it is not easy to see them. However, the gray fox also can be seen out and about during the morning and early evening hours searching for a wide variety of things to eat from small mammals and reptiles to berries, beans and cactus fruit.

Gray foxes are known for their unique ability to climb trees using their sharp, thick and slightly curved claws.  Their tree climbing ability enables them to escape many predators such as coyotes and dogs trailing them.

The untouched boulder-strewn terrain found of the area is the perfect place for a gray fox pair to create a den for their young, usually born in the spring. On this particular day, this gray fox seemed to be enjoying the cool, sunny afternoon as he ignored the scolding squirrels. After a couple of minutes, he turned on his paws and trotted off, quickly camouflaged against the backdrop of granite and creosote. Wonder in the desert is often fleeting, so enjoy the moment.

Points to Ponder for Young Trackers
  • When you trek in wild places, pay attention to the birds and animals.  Sometimes a flitting bird or chattering squirrel is a warning. Stop and survey the terrain to see if you can spot a potential predator.
  • Learn about animal tracks.  It is sometimes hard to see tracks in the dry dusty soil of the desert. Check areas where water collects. 
  • Scat, fur and other animal remains can give us clues about what animals frequent the area. 
  • Look for areas with steady food and water sources.  Berries, nuts, seeds and lush foliage attract insects, birds and smaller animals, and where there is an abundance of prey, larger predators are sure to appear.
  • Always, track with caution.  Wild animals are fun to see, but need to be enjoyed at a safe distance. Animals who are sick, accompanying young or and/feel threatened can be dangerous.
References and Resources

Fox World - Kit Fox - How to Read the Footprints of Desert Critters
Nature Tracking 
McDowell Mountain Preserve Flora and Fauna
Desert Wildlife Services

Cultivate Wonder... Discover Design

Bat Echoes

Bats are such interesting little creatures. They seem like some sort of bird species gone awry, but they are actually beautifully designe...