Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Sunset

"When I admire the wonders of a sunset or the beauty of the moon,
my soul expands in the worship of the creator."
~Mohandas Gandhi

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Winter Solstice

At the time of Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun's daily path across the sky has reached its furthest point south and its lowest altitude above the horizon. This occurs every year around December 21-22. The sun will slowly start to appear to head back north now, bringing us longer days and shorter nights.

The pic immediately below was taken at sunset, at the Winter Solstice. Compared to the other pics in our series, you can really see how far the sun's path has moved from North to South over the last 6 months. The palm trees are a bit taller, too ;-).

All pictures taken facing west.

Sunset at Winter Solstice - December 21, 2012

Sunset at Autumnal Equinox - September 22, 2012

Sunset at Summer Solstice - June 20, 2012

The time of Winter Solstice has been an important event in cultures throughout human history. Early astronomers watched the celestial movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars. They knew that Winter Solstice marked the seasonal end of long nights and the eventual return of longer, warmer days.

Many celebrations worldwide recognized the Winter Solstice as a time of rebirth, the victory of light over darkness, and the return of the sun. These celebrations often included the lighting of candles or bonfires, special songs and ceremonies, and much feasting with special foods for the occasion. Holiday traditions nowadays reflect many of these earlier practices. Our traditional Christmas celebration fits right in.

"I don't really celebrate Christmas. I celebrate Festivus."
~ George, on Seinfeld, "The Strike" (1997)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pushwalla Palms

Map of Hiking Trails at the CV Preserve

This past weekend we decided to burn some Thanksgiving calories with a hike to Pushwalla Palms.

Pushwalla Palms is one of a number of palm oases located in the Coachella Valley Preserve, in Thousand Palms, CA.

The weather was perfect for a day outside - highs in the low 80's and a beautiful blue sky.

In fact, the day was so gorgeous we decided to make a longer loop, by adding Hidden Palms and Horseshoe Palms to our hike.

Palm oases are leftovers from a time when our desert had a much wetter climate.

These particular oases are located along the infamous San Andreas Fault, which cuts through our Coachella Valley in a diagonal path from the Salton Sea through the Banning Pass.

At various points along the faultline groundwater reaches the surface, providing moisture that the palm trees need to survive.

Trail to Hidden Palms

Here are some pics from our hike.

Hidden Palms Oasis
Looking down on Pushwalla Palms

Trail down into Pushwalla Palms canyon

Groundwater reaches the surface, then sinks back into the sandy soil

The water also attracts butterflies, bees and dragonflies.

Butterflies drink water that has absorbed minerals and salt from the soil around it.
These nutrients are an important part of their diet.

When butterflies drink from shallow water like this, it is called "puddling".

Colorful Algae

The ripe palm fruits are an important food source for birds.

Owls often roost in the dried frond skirts of the palm trees. We found quite a few boluses, or owl pellets, at the foot of the palm trunks.

The pellet is the undigestible part of an owl's meal, which it coughs up. The pellet may contain fur, bones, claws, feathers, insect exoskeletons and other parts of the consumed prey. These parts have no nutritional value.

They do have scientific value, however. Researchers can collect, dry and sterilize the pellets before dissecting them to identify the contents.

They can then identify what the owl has fed on, and by extension what other animal species are living in the area.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"...Walk into My Parlor..."

It's almost Halloween.

In the spirit of the holiday, here are some cool pics of a spider living in our yard.

The markings on its abdomen are just beautiful.

He lives in our Milpa Garden.

The web was strung between the dried cornstalks.

He was eating a honeybee when we found him.

ANOTHER reason to not use pesticides...

"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the Spider to the Fly.
"'Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I've many curious things to show when you are there."

"Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again..."

~ Mary Howitt, English Poet  (1799-1888)
from her poem "The Spider and the Fly"

Sunday, September 30, 2012

More Volunteer Plants

A lot of the plants growing in our yard are volunteers - plants that self seeded or otherwise appeared on their own. These volunteer plants tend to do pretty well, since they "chose" their own location.

This is millet, which sprouted from spilled bird seed.

We have let it grow to provide natural (and free) food for the birds.

The seed heads can be left on the plant, or they can be cut and hung up at the bird feeding stations.

Kind of neat how the new seed head emerges from the stalk of the plant.


This green vine is probably a volunteer watermelon plant.

We planted a small patch of watermelons in this area of the yard last season.

It would be cool to get a second, spontaneous crop.

The vine is growing up a volunteer palm tree, which was "planted" by a visiting bird. 

"More in the garden grows
than what the gardener sows."
~ Spanish proverb

Saturday, September 29, 2012

It's.... The Bishop!

(with apologies to Monty Python...)

Yesterday morning we heard a new bird calling in our front yard. We looked around and located the source - a beautiful bright reddish-orange bird with a black face and belly, perched high overhead on the telephone wires. I had never seen this bird in person before, but I immediately recognized it (thanks to time spent aimlessly perusing my N.G. Bird Field Guide).

ORANGE BISHOP (top line, above House Finches)

It was a male Orange Bishop.

He was "loosely associating" with some House Finches, who were waiting for us to fill the bird feeders. I ducked back into the house for the camera, and took 2 really bad photos before he and the finches spooked and flew off together.

The pics were super-zoomed and pretty blurry, unfortunately. We filled the bird feeders with hopes he would come back.

Orange Bishop is native to sub-Saharan Africa. They are a member of the weaver family (Ploceidae), so-named because of the intricately woven nests they build. Orange Bishop is smaller than a House Finch (~4" vs. 6"). As previously mentioned, the breeding male is bright reddish-orange and black. Female is very plain, and is often compared to Grasshopper Sparrow in bird field guides. Orange Bishop has a thicker, conical bill - black in males and fleshy pink in the females. Their tails are short and blunt.

Orange Bishop prefers open areas, especially tall grasslands near water. The species has become established in the Los Angeles area (1980's) and Phoenix (~late 1990's).

This morning I went out to get the newspaper, and I heard the bird calling again. He was up on the phone line, in the same place as yesterday.

I went back inside and got the camera. I took another bad picture, this time through a window and 2 trees.


Here's how they actually look.
They are really handsome birds.


Image credit:

National Geographic
Field Guide to the
Birds of North America

Sixth Edition, page 528-29

New Life Bird.
New Yard Bird.

Pretty darn cool.

ANNOUNCER: "And now for something completely different..."
~ Monty Python's Flying Circus

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Autumnal Equinox

Today is the Autumnal Equinox, the first day of Fall here in the Northern Hemisphere.

The sun's path across the sky has been moving steadily south since the Summer Solstice, the first day of Summer back on June 20th. 

It has been easy to notice lately that days are getting shorter. The sun is rising later and setting earlier than it did during the summer months. Temperatures are cooling off too.

The shorter days and cooler temperatures mean lots of birds are on the move now. Our summer bird visitors have headed south for the winter. The White-winged Doves and Hooded Orioles left our yard a couple of weeks ago, headed to their winter homes. They will be replaced by our winter residents: White-crowned Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers are the two most numerous in our yard.

We will be keeping all of our feeders well-stocked, to welcome the snowbirds back and to help the travelers as they pass through.

Back in June we posted a picture of sunset on the day of the Summer Solstice, when the sun is at its farthest point north in the sky. Here is a photo of the sunset today, looking due west. The sun's movement to the south is definitely noticeable. It will continue moving south until the Winter Solstice in December.

Looking West - Sunset on 09.22.12  (Autumnal Equinox)

Sunset on 06.20.12  (Summer Solstice)

"I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air."
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Talk Like a Pirate Day

Ahoy ye lubbers!

Today be International "Talk Like a Pirate Day".

If ye'd like to channel yer inner Captain Jack Sparrow, sail on over to the official TLAP Day website:


-- Learn the history of TLAP Day!

-- Take the Pirate Personality Test!

-- Use the English to Pirate translator!

-- Read the Pirate Advice column!

-- Learn how to celebrate TLAP Day in your workplace!

-- Listen to Pirate Music!

-- Get Pirate ring tones for your phone!

-- Subscribe to the Poopdeck newsletter!

-- Find links to lots of merry mayhem and Pirattitude!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Whose Whoo is Whose?

We were up before sunrise this morning, and noticed that a Great Horned Owl was calling from somewhere nearby. As we stopped to listen, we realized there were actually two owls calling back and forth to each other. The first voice had a slightly higher pitch, and the second was noticeably lower.

It was still rather dark, as I quietly went outside into the courtyard.

Looking in the direction of their calls, I saw one of the owls perched on a telephone line, silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky. It was the owl with the deeper voice and I could see its movements each time it called.

The other owl remained hidden, but continued to call in its higher voice.

I was able to watch and listen for a few minutes, before the high-voiced owl suddenly appeared. It took off from its hidden perch and silently flew south toward the big trees on the golf course. The owl on the wire followed a few seconds later.

Pretty neat way to start the day.
We're hoping they come back again for another visit.

"O you virtuous owle, The wise Minerva's only fowle."
~ Sir Philip Sidney - A Remedy for Love

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Milpa Garden

Our milpa garden planted with Corn, Squash and Beans

Earlier this year we decided to experiment with planting a small, traditional-style milpa garden.

milpa is a plot of land planted with a number of different complementary food crops.

This efficient agricultural technique was developed thousands of years ago in ancient Mesoamerica. It is still in use today in many areas of Mexico and Central America.

Squash blossom in the milpa

The milpa garden has many advantages over modern single-crop plantings:

-- multiple crops can be grown in the same plot simultaneously
-- very low maintenance
-- reduced water usage
-- the different plants provide various benefits to the garden and to each other

We chose to plant the "Three Sisters" of Native American agriculture: corn (maize), beans, and squash.

Corn and beans can be planted close together, saving space in the garden.
The corn stalks provide a natural trellis for the beans to grow up.
Corn and beans provide complementary amino acids, for a nutritionally complete diet. 
The squash were planted in between the rows of corn/beans.
The low-growing squash plants help cut down on growth of weeds.
The taller corn provides cooling shade for the squash plants.
The roots of the bean plant restore nitrogen to the soil.

Our corn ripened about a month ago, just as the 120 degree weather hit. The ears got desiccated and we were not able to harvest fresh corn. So we left the ears to dry on the stalks, to eventually be ground into meal. The dried corn stalks are providing a natural trellis for the climbing beans, which are just beginning to flower.

Climbing beans using dried corn stalks as natural trellis

Butternut Squash

The squash was a different story. Protected in the shade of the corn stalks, there was enough squash for us and to share with friends.

We have enjoyed it steamed, mixed into stir-fry, and as a delicious vegan soup.

In the future we plan on experimenting with planting more heirloom and desert native varieties of traditional plants in our garden.

The milpa "is one of the most successful inventions ever created."
~ H. Garrison Wilkes, maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Boston
Quoted in the book  1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,
by Charles C. Mann

More info:

Saturday, August 18, 2012


A couple of evenings ago, we found a dragonfly that had crash landed in our pool.

We though we were too late when we fished it out of the water.

It sat motionless in my hand for a few seconds, then grabbed onto my finger and fluttered its wings slightly.

It was rather large, with a blue-ish green body and beautiful rusty brown markings on the hindwings.

We were able to watch it for nearly 15 minutes as it perched calmly on my finger and dried itself off.

It spent a lot of time running its front legs across its face and eyes, as it preened and recovered from the unexpected swim.

Dragonflies have been living on this planet for over 300 million years. Fossils dating back to the Carboniferous Period, reveal giant species with wingspans of up to 30 inches!

Dragonflies are fast and agile flyers. Their wings are criss-crossed with multiple veins, which give them structure, shape and strength. Dragonflies are able to fly forwards, backwards, up, down and sideways, as well as hovering in place. Kind of like an insect version of a hummingbird!

When you see an adult dragonfly, it has already lived most of its life. Mated females lay their eggs in wet areas. The eggs hatch into a nymph form which lives underwater. The nymph will molt many times as it grows in size, eating small aquatic invertebrates, fish and tadpoles. The underwater nymph form lasts from 2 months to 6 years (depending on species).

For its final molt, the nymph crawls up out of the water. The old skin splits and the adult dragonfly emerges. The adult will only live another 5 or 6 months after this.

If you have dragonflies in your yard, they will help by eating mosquitos, flies, gnats, wasps and other small insects.

Dragonflies catch their meal in the air, aided by their keen vision. Their huge eyes cover most of their head.

The eyes are compound and consist of nearly 30,000 individual elements. Over 3/4 of the dragonfly's brain is devoted to processing visual information.

Their strong legs are covered with stiff hairs that help hold their prey.

Dragonflies themselves are eaten by lizards, birds, fish, frogs, spiders and even other dragonflies. Their agility in flight and their huge eyes help them to avoid becoming someone elses' meal.

I was looking for a safe perch to put this little guy, when it took off on its own. It hovered above my head for a few seconds before streaking off to chase a smaller dragonfly out of our back yard. A few minutes later it reappeared, chasing a hummingbird into a tree.

Apparently, the recovery was complete.  :-)

"This dragonfly came up to me. He was hovering right in front of my face, and I was really examining him, thinking, How does he see me? I became enlightened."
~ Ziggy Marley

For more info:
Odonata: Dragonflies and Damselflies

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Curiosity Has Landed

The rover Curiosity landed safely on Mars this evening, after an 8 month journey through space.

Curiosity's First Image from Mars

NASA-TV provided a live feed from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which we watched online.

All of the complicated steps needed to land Curiosity safely on the Red Planet were orchestrated flawlessly.

As each critical maneuver was accomplished, applause and cheers erupted from staff in the control room at JPL.

Curiosity touched down on the Martian surface at 10:32pm PDT, and within a few minutes the rover's first image (above) was transmitted back to Earth. It shows the rocky soil with one of Curiosity's wheel in the foreground

NASA websites were overloaded by people trying to access the images online (including us).

The United States now has two operational science rovers on Mars: newly-arrived Curiosity, and its much smaller cousin Opportunity - which landed on Mars 8 years ago and is still functioning!

It is astounding to think that within minutes of safely landing a man-made craft on a different planet, we have these images available on our home computers.


Web site for the Mars Science Laboratory mission

Curiosity's Twitter feed

Curiosity's Facebook page

"7 Minutes of Terror: Curiosity Rover's Risky Mars Landing Video"

Friday, August 3, 2012

A New Yard Lizard

We have been seeing a new little lizard in our courtyard over the last couple weeks.

Usually we just get a quick glimpse as he races across the sidewalk ahead of us, or darts into a clump of plants.

A couple of days ago we found him sitting on a small rock by our hose storage pot.

We probably would have missed him if we hadn't noticed his quick movements as he turned to check us out.

I was able to get the camera for a couple of pics.

He really blended in well with the grey and tan rocks in our yard.

"Leapin' lizards, just look at this joint!"
~Little Orphan Annie, in Annie

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Day Trip to Idyllwild


Last weekend we decided to take a break from the desert heat, and head up the hill to the mountain community of Idyllwild. We also wanted to stop by the Lemon Lily Festival while we were in town.

The Festival is held to promote awareness of the Lemon Lily, with the goal of educating the public about its status and restoring the plant to its former habitats.

The Lemon Lily (Lilium paryii) is a fragrant and showy wildflower that grows in moist, shady habitats such as springs, bogs and canyon bottoms. It can reach an impressive height of up to 5 feet, with multiple blooms at the end of the tall stalk.

Lemon Lily was much more widespread than it is today. One hundred years ago the Lily was already disappearing from its natural habitats due to over-collecting of the bulbs and plants. Today it is found mainly in the most remote  areas of its historic range. Although it is not endangered, it is considered a sensitive species.

The Lemon Lily Festival featured guided nature walks, a native plant sale, live music and plenty of food. Local restaurants offered specially themed items on their menus, and an art fair featured area artists selling their handcrafted items.

We took a relaxing hike on the trails around the Idyllwild Nature Center. Really refreshing to enjoy the pines and oak trees, white puffy clouds, and the cooling breezes.

After leaving the Idyllwild Nature Center, we made a stop at Lake Fulmor. - just a few miles further down the highway.

 The lake was pretty busy, with families picnicking, BBQ-ing, fishing and enjoying the beautiful day outside. The lake is stocked with bluegill, large mouth bass and rainbow trout.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Praying Mantis


Mornings have been relatively cool lately (in the low 80's), so we've been working in the yard before it gets too hot and humid.

Occasionally, we find Praying Mantises.

This one was living in a clump of dried up wildflowers in the courtyard. S/he is about 2 inches long, and a pale green color.

Praying Mantis is a highly voracious and efficient predator. They eat crickets, flies, spiders and (depending on the size of the mantis) smaller lizards, rodents and birds.

They can sit still for hours on end, gently swaying to mimic the motion of a leaf or branch in a breeze.


They will also patiently stalk their prey. When the unsuspecting victim is within reach, the praying mantis will grab it with its forearms in a lightning-fast strike.

The prey is devoured alive. A sharp, cutting mouth tears through the tough exoskeleton of insect prey. Spikes on the forearms help the mantis keep hold of its victim.

Praying mantises have excellent binocular vision, and can turn their head from side to side - up to 300ยบ range of motion in some species. They are primarily diurnal.

The mantis life cycle has three stages: egg, nymph and adult. Mating season is typically in autumn. The male is sometimes consumed by the female after mating.

Eggs are laid in a frothy mass that hardens into a protective case, or ootheca. Egg capsules that survive the winter will hatch in late spring or early summer. The hatchling nymphs are ravenous and feed on fruit flies, aphids - or each other if sufficient food is not available. The mantis nymph will grow and molt a number of times before reaching adult size and beginning the cycle again. Praying mantises only live for about a year.

Many garden supply stores sell mantis egg cases for biological pest control. Or you can watch in your yard for the egg cases that have been laid on the underside of twigs and leaves.

After our photo session, I moved the mantis to another part of the yard where s/he is less likely to be disturbed.

A good reason not to use pesticides in the garden...


"Fear the bug!"  ~Mantis, Kung Fu Panda 2

More info about Praying Mantis:  www.theprayingmantis.org

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Best. Finch. Feeders. Ever.

This year we had quite a few volunteer sunflower plants appear in our yard.

These grew on their own, from seeds that dropped from last year's plants.

The tallest plant was this one - over 11 feet high. It has more than 100 flowers and buds.

That's a lot of seeds...

We had other volunteer sunflowers, but they didn't grow nearly as tall as this one.

Two of the other sunflowers grew to about 7 feet high. They each had a single ginormous seed head, measuring over 10" across - larger than a dinner plate.

The other smaller sunflower plants are drying and setting seeds, too.


House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches have been feasting for a couple of weeks now.

We have had over 20 birds on the sunflowers at one time.


The Lesser Goldfinches are still nibbling the sunflower leaves (below).


Planting sunflowers is an easy way to feed birds.

-- Natural food
-- No pesticides or chemicals
-- No refilling
-- Way cheaper than Nyjer Thistle
-- No cleaning of feeders
-- Multiple seed heads minimize       squabbling and "bully birds"
-- No one goes hungry if we forget to feed
-- Best of all - inexpensive or FREE!

"All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today."
~ Indian proverb