Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Freeze Warning

In early December, the "Pineapple Express" brought some much-needed rain to California. Many areas that had previously burned in wildfires were plagued by mudslides, and other areas experienced flooding. Here in our part of the desert we had some gentle rains that soaked into the soil instead of running off.

A week later we were enjoying desert temps in the low 80's. Some volunteer plants in our yard seemed to think it was already spring.

Yesterday winter storm "Frona" arrived in the desert, bringing near-freezing overnight temperatures and dropping snow down to the 2000 ft elevation.

Incoming storm

This is a view we don't see too often: snow blanketing the southern hills.

Snow after winter storm Frona - 31 Dec 2014

"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."
~ Mae West

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Autumn Leaves

Temperatures continue to cool as the days get shorter. Highs have been in the 70's, while the overnight lows have dropped into the upper 40's a couple of times already.

Here in the desert we don't get the dramatic seasonal changes that other parts of the country experience. Cacti and palm trees look pretty much the same year-round. Many of our native desert trees are winter deciduous, but they drop their leaves without the brilliant color change of trees like maples, oaks and many others.

In our yard, our fruit trees are one of the few exceptions with fall-colored leaves,

These are from our nectarine tree.

"The autumn leaves drift by my window,
The autumn leaves of red and gold..."

~ "Autumn Leaves", English lyrics by Johnny Mercer

Friday, November 21, 2014

Hawk Watching

We have been seeing a number of hawks recently, on our morning walks.

Normally there is at least one Red-Tailed Hawk perched on a telephone pole or soaring overhead. Last week we stopped to watch two Red-tails following and chasing each other between eucalyptus trees and date palms on the nearby golf course.

Cooper's Hawks make a regular appearance, too. We usually see them either sitting quietly on a telephone pole, or swooping dramatically between houses and trees. They are very agile and almost acrobatic at times. They often buzz through our yard, hunting the birds eating at our feeders.

Red-shouldered Hawks are some of the more easily noticed on our walks. We hear them calling from the tops of the tall eucalyptus trees nearby, or vocalizing as they soar high overhead.

One Red-shouldered has been keeping an eye on our mesquite trees, either hanging out on the wall or perched on the telephone lines. Probably hoping to nab a Mourning Dove or lizard for a meal.

For more about hawks and other native birds in your area:

This excellent web resource is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and includes photos, recordings, range maps, life histories, conservation news, hints for improving your backyard habitat, and LOTS more.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Our daytime highs are still in the 90's, but the overnight lows have dropped into the mid-60's. Cooler temperatures bring the return of our winter resident snowbirds.

White-crowned Sparrows were the first to arrive, and have been here now for a couple of weeks.

This past weekend we saw a male Phainopepla perched in the top of one of our mesquite trees. We trimmed the trees recently, but were sure to leave some Mistletoe so the Phainopeplas would have the berries to eat.

We also heard Yellow-rumped Warblers over the weekend. And while driving to work this morning, I saw 2 flocks of Canada Geese flying by low overhead.

Our morning walks definitely have a different feeling now. It is much cooler, and we are out before sunrise. The calls of White-crowns and Yellow-rumps have added to the chorus of Mockingbirds and Bewick's Wrens we normally hear.

Fall has definitely arrived.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Viewing a Partial Solar Eclipse Indirectly (and SAFELY)

Safety is extremely important when viewing a partial solar eclipse.
NEVER look directly at a partially eclipsed sun without proper eye protection.
We have solar filters for our field scope, binos and our 10" Dobsonian.
But there are other ways to view an eclipse indirectly, without needing special equipment.

During the partial phases of a solar eclipse, you can see the sun's crescent shape in the dappled sunlight beneath leafy trees. The shape of the crescents corresponds to the shape of the solar disk at that particular moment. There was a little bit of a breeze during the partial eclipse today, so hundreds of little crescents were dancing in the shadows below the trees.

You can also create crescents by holding your fingers overlapped in a criss-cross to create a tic-tac-toe patterned shadow. It takes a little "focusing", moving nearer or further from a light colored surface, to get the crescents to appear.

A loose weave straw hat will also cast hundreds of tiny crescents in its shadow. Again, you can play with angle and distance from a white surface to get maximum effect.

Use a pin to punch a small hole in a 3X5" notecard. Hold the card so the light coming through the pinhole is projected onto a flat white surface. You will see the crescent shape of the sun in the projected light.

Partial Solar Eclipse - 23 Oct 2014

Today there was a partial solar eclipse, which was visible throughout most of North America.

It occurred during the work day, so we brought our field scope and solar filter to the office, and set it up out behind the shop.

We had nice clear skies, and about 12 of our work neighbors joined us to (safely) view the event.

During a solar eclipse the moon passes between the earth and the sun. It may block part, most or all of the sun's disk.

For this partial solar eclipse, about 30% of the sun was covered by the moon at maximum.

Here near Palm Springs, CA the moon took the first bite out of the sun around 2:15pm, max coverage was about  3:30pm, and sun returned to normal by 4:40pm.

The solar filter on the scope gave us excellent views. Numerous sunspots were visible on the sun's surface, including a huge grouping near the lower central equatorial region (not visible in these images).

At 25 power the moon's black edge looked slightly uneven, due to geological features on the lunar surface such as mountains, valleys and crater rims.

Want to know when the next solar eclipse will be visible from your area?
Use this nifty web tool on the NASA web site.
It lists locations world-wide and covers years from 1500 BC to 3000 AD.
Just in case you need to know...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Another Lunar Eclipse

We got up at ~3:30am this morning to see the total lunar eclipse.

The moon was already in its total phase when we got outside to observe.

We took some pics using our Digital-Camera-Hand-Held-to-Field-Scope-Eyepiece technique.

As the earth's shadow slowly moved across the moon's face, the bright lunar surface gradually reappeared.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Red Barrel Cactus

Last year we "rescued" some barrel cacti that a neighbor was getting rid of. They were redesigning their front yard landscaping and the 3 cacti were destined for the landfill.

By the time we got them, they had been dug up and baking in the sun for a few days. We carefully transplanted them into our yard, and made simple cardboard sunblocks to protect them from any further sun damage. We weren't sure how they were going to do.

We kept a close eye on them, but there didn't seem to be much change or growth.

Then, about a month ago one of them started to bloom.

Over the course of the last few weeks there has been a steady display of beautiful red flowers around the crown.

"The flower which is single need not envy the thorns that are numerous."
~ Rabindranath Tagore

Monday, September 8, 2014

Another Deluge

This morning we had a monster rain storm, very similar to the one we had almost exactly one year ago. It poured buckets, with thunder rumbling from the heavy grey clouds. Judging from the rise in the water level of our pool, we got over 4-1/2 inches of rain in 2 hours.

Unfortunately when the rain comes down so hard and fast in the desert, it doesn't get a chance to soak very deep into the parched soil. Much of the rainwater runs off into nearby washes.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Momma Wolf Spider

We took a dip in the pool after an early morning walk today, and noticed something large at the opposite end of the pool. Swimming closer, we could see it was a huge spider clinging to the slippery tile just above the waterline.

Thinking it was in imminent danger we jumped out of the pool to grab the skimmer net, in case it dropped into the drink.

By the time we got back the spider had carefully navigated across the tile and was resting comfortably between two waterfall rocks.

It wasn't until we took some close-up pics that we saw the spider was a female, carrying hundreds of tiny baby spiderlets on her back.

She spent the next half hour or so tucked between the rocks. When we checked back, she and her babies had moved on to a safer spot somewhere else in our yard.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Return of the Palo Verde Root Borer

We were cleaning up in the front yard this morning, and came across a recently deceased Palo Verde Root Borer Beetle.

The one I found back in March was scurrying for cover, and I was only able to get two photos before it disappeared.

This one was much easier to photograph.

Close-up photos show the spikes on the carapace ...

... and the impressive chomping mandibles.

If these things were the size of a German Shepherd, they would probably rule the world.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Cereus Blooms

Over the last couple of weeks, our desert temperatures have been creeping steadily up into the low 100's during the day.

As the weather warmed, the cereus cacti in our neighborhood all started to bloom.

For about a week we enjoyed the sight of these delicate - and huge - flowers on our morning walks.

Here are a few of our pics, with a big THANK YOU to our neighbors and their desert native landscaping.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Artichoke Flower

This artichoke plant is growing in a neighbor's front yard.

We've been keeping an eye on it as we pass by on our morning walks.

Recently it bloomed, and the flower is beautiful.

The smaller flower on the left is what you might buy in the grocery store, and cook up for dinner.

"These things are just plain annoying. After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual 'food' out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps. Have the shrimp cocktail instead."

~ Miss Piggy

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Palo Verde Root Borer Beetle

I was taking advantage of the cool morning weather to do some weeding and clean up in the front yard. As I grabbed a handful of dead leaves from under a cactus, I felt something move in my gloved hand.
Palo Verde Root Borer Beetle

Glancing down I saw I was holding what looked like the most ginormous cockroach in the world.

Startled, I dropped it.

As it lumbered off, I saw it wasn't a cockroach at all.

It was a Palo Verde Root Borer beetle.

These beetles are BIG - up to 3" long or more, not including the antennae. They have pinching mandibles that can give a nasty bite if handled. The thorax has spikes along the edges. This particular beetle was a dark reddish-brown but they can also be brown or black.

Palo Verde Root Borers have an interesting life cycle. After mating, the female lays her eggs in the soil near a palo verde or other host tree. The eggs hatch and the larva burrows into the roots of the nearby tree where it begins eating. Over the next 2-4 years, the creamy yellow-white larva will continue feeding underground on the roots of the tree, and then pupate.

The adult beetles normally hatch out after summer rains (we had a brief shower on Wednesday). They are clumsy fliers and may travel from their hatching area in search of a mate.

Palo Verde Root Borer Beetle

Adults only live for about a month above ground.

During this time they do not eat, in spite of the impressive jaws. Those chompers are used for mating and fighting.

The beetle will die soon after mating.

In addition to Palo Verde trees, the Palo Verde Root Borer may also feed on olive trees, some cottonwoods, and citrus in some areas. These beetles should not be a threat to healthy trees, which can outgrow any damage the larvae may cause. The best defense is to make sure your trees are healthy by providing adequate water, and fertilizer as needed. You can also turn off exterior lights to avoid attracting adult insects.

Although they are formidable-looking, Palo Verde Root Borer beetles are eaten by roadrunners, coyotes and owls.

"When a blind beetle crawls over the surface of the globe, he doesn't realize that the track he has covered is curved. I was lucky enough to have spotted it."

~Albert Einstein

Friday, May 23, 2014

May Showers

We had a surprise rain shower roll through parts of our desert yesterday afternoon. Dark clouds, grumbling thunder and some lightning flashes. We actually had a pretty good downpour for about 15 minutes. Flash flood warnings issued were issued for some nearby areas.

The rain brought some welcome cooler temperatures. We've already been over 100ยบ a couple of times this year. Normally it would be in the 90's now.

"Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather."

~John Rushkin, English art critic and social thinker  (1819-1900)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Barefoot Peach Lemonade

If you Google "recipe peach lemon", you get lots of hits for Peach Lemonade. Some recipes have complicated steps, others have a loads of sugar. We found a simple recipe and modified it for our own super-sweet, freshly picked peaches.

Barefoot Peach Lemonade

In a medium saucepan, stir together 2 c. water and 1/2 c. sugar*. Add 2 large peaches sliced and mash everything together with a potato masher. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until peaches are tender, about 5-6 minutes.

Cool, then strain the peach juices into a bowl. Save the peach pulp for another use (pie, muffins, etc.).

When the peach juice is cooled, pour it into a large pitcher and add 3/4 c. lemon juice and 1 more c. of water*. Stir and serve over ice in a tall glass.

(Makes four 8-oz servings)

Adult beverage option:
  1 part Peach Lemonade and 1 part Moscato or other sparkling wine.

We made a number of modifications to the original online recipe (besides the Moscato):
-- The original recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar. Our peaches were already very sweet, so we cut the sugar in half and let the peach flavor stand out.
-- We reduced the amount of water added in the final step, from 2 cups to 1 cup. You can always add more water if you want depending on your peaches, lemons, and personal taste.

"Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it."
~ Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Nectarines, Lemons and Peaches (...oh boy!)

For the last few weeks we have been enjoying fresh lemons, peaches and nectarines from our fruit trees.

The House Finches REALLY love the peaches and nectarines too. We have tried passive methods to discourage them - hanging shiny reflective CD's. draping metallic holiday garland through the branches. We finally decided to compromise and let the birds have the fruit in the uppermost branches. We take the fruit on the lower branches where it's easier for us to reach. There is plenty of fruit, so everyone is happy.

There is no comparison between store-bought fruit and home grown.

Store-bought has been engineered to look pretty and to transport without bruising or other damage.

These peaches and nectarines are so juicy there is no way they could be picked and transported in a truck.

"A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin: what else does a man need to be happy?"
~ Albert Einstein

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday = First Sunday AFTER the First Full Moon AFTER the Vernal Equinox

"Easter" Bunny hiding in Bird of Paradise Bush


This year:
-- Vernal Equinox =  March 20
-- First Full Moon AFTER the Vernal Equinox = April 14 (Lunar Eclipse!)
-- First Sunday AFTER the first  Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox = April 20.

Easter Sunday

"Two thousand years ago Jesus is crucified, three days later he walks out of a cave and they celebrate with chocolate bunnies and marshmallow Peeps and beautifully decorated eggs. I guess these were things Jesus loved as a child."

~ Billy Crystal - Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going and Where the Hell are My Keys

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Some Backyard Visitors...

We had a visit this morning from a pair of Mallards, who thought our swimming pool was a good place to take a break.

They swam a bit, and then rested on our beach shelf for a while.

These ducks were not afraid of us, so they were probably taking a break from the busy pond at the local park. 

"If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands."
~Douglas Adams

Monday, April 14, 2014

"A Marvelous Night for a Moondance..."

Total Lunar Eclipse - April 14-15, 2014

Total lunar eclipse late tonight into early Tuesday morning. Visible from most of North and South America, Hawaii, and parts of Alaska.

10:58pm - Partial eclipse begins
12:06am - Total eclipse starts
1:25am - Total eclipse ends
2:33 am - Partial eclipse ends

All times above are PDT.

Info courtesy of
Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar:

All of these pics were taken with our trusty point-and-shoot Sony Cyber-shot, hand-held to the eyepiece of our 25x field scope.

Jet contrail just below the moon as the eclipse begins

During the early phases of the eclipse, 3 large birds (cormorants?) flew across the face of the moon while I was observing through the scope naked-eye. Pretty cool... what are the chances?

Because of the high dark/bright contrast in the early phases of the eclipse, our images picked up some "green cheese" color aberration.

As the eclipse progressed, the colors in the pics were more true to naked-eye viewing.

This "Blood Moon" eclipse was the first in a series of four total lunar eclipses that will occur between April 2014 and May 2015. The next eclipse in this "tetrad" will be on October 8, 2014.

NASA's eclipse web site:

"Well it's a marvelous night for a moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes..."
Moondance, lyrics by Van Morrison

Sunday, April 13, 2014

An Easy (and cheap) Backyard Habitat Improvement

We saw our first-of-season Black-headed Grosbeak while we were working on the milpa garden yesterday morning. She whistled from her perch in one of our mesquite trees, then flew to the top of a brush pile where we got a good view. She then flew back up into the mesquite tree and disappeared into the foliage.

Black-headed Grosbeaks have previously enjoyed the large seed blocks that we put out for them. The blocks can be pretty messy, so we wanted to find a new location to hang it away from our patios and foot traffic areas.

We decided to put in a snag to hold the suet cage. The installation took less than 30 minutes, and we used materials we already had on hand.

The materials were a 12" piece of ABS pipe (4" diameter), an appropriate snag ~6 feet long from our brush pile, and a rock. We chose a location in the backyard that was easily visible from our windows.

First we used a post hole digger to dig a hole just under a foot deep. We wanted the ABS pipe to stick up about an inch above the ground when everything was done.

Next we placed the ABS pipe in the hole, and gently tapped it into place.
We backfilled the hole all around the pipe, and tamped the soil down firmly.

The snag was trimmed to shape, placed into the pipe and adjusted into position. A rock was used to wedge the snag into place. We put the seed block in a wire suet cage and hung it on the snag.

We have used the ABS pipe in our courtyard, to place a cactus skeleton and some dead ocotillo branches. The cactus is mainly a decorative element, and we put out orange halves on the spiky ocotillo branches.

This is a really simple way to add a decorative or functional snag anywhere in your yard. It is sturdy, but easy to switch out or move to a different location. And the birds will appreciate the additional perches.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

One Last Storm... (maybe)

Another storm rolled in to Southern California a couple of days ago.

The coastal region got much-needed rain. Here in the desert we got a few widely scattered drops. Mount San Jacinto and the nearby peaks received more snow.

Our temperatures have been below normal for the last few days. Predictions for the weekend are above-normal temps in the low 90's.

"Despite the forecast, live like it's Spring."
~ Lilly Pulitzer

Monday, March 31, 2014

An Early Easter Egg

We found half of a tiny eggshell under our palo verde tree this weekend.

The egg was probably less than an inch long before it hatched.

Plain white, no markings.

The palo verde tree is  thick with flowers now. It would be difficult to see a nest up there.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Well, THAT was fast...

We had been keeping an eye on the monarch chrysalis in our courtyard for the last 2 weeks. A couple of days ago we noticed the beautiful green chrysalis had turned a dark charcoal black. That didn't seem like a good thing, and we feared the worst.

Two days later we noticed the black chrysalis was no longer visible in the chuparosa bush. We figured the caterpillar inside had died and the chrysalis probably dropped from the twig.

A day after that, we got curious and took a closer look. We found the chrysalis was still in its place, but saw the butterfly had emerged sometime earlier, leaving behind a torn chrysalis that was a very pale translucent tan color.

Some quick research showed that what we thought was a dead black chrysalis was actually the wings of the ready-to-hatch butterfly showing through the walls of the chrysalis.

It was surprising how quickly the butterfly metamorphosed through the chrysalis stage into the adult butterfly. We first noticed the little caterpillars on 4 March. By 10 March they had tripled in size. On 12 March we found the chrysalis in our chuparosa bush. And it appears that the adult butterfly hatched out around 23 March.

Adult monarch butterflies will live 2-6 weeks, during which time they will feed on nectar and mate. The females will then lay eggs that will become the next generation. Hopefully we have enough of a variety of native plants for the adult butterflies to feed on, and they will decide to lay more eggs in our yard. Adding more milkweed plants is definitely on our gardening to-do list.

(And next time we'll know to grab the camera when the chrysalis turns black...)

For more information about Monarch Butterflies, their life cycle and how you can help them:

Learn how to create a Monarch Waystation for migrating butterflies:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Too Much "Spring Cleaning"

One of our neighbors trimmed their native Fan Palms this weekend. The beautiful thick frond skirt and fruiting stalks were completely removed, ground up in a shredder and hauled off to the dump.

Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Finches, Cedar Waxwings and Robins had been recently feeding on the palm fruits.

Hooded Orioles create intricate woven nests in the protection of the palm fronds. I hope our recent arrivals hadn't started nest building activities in those trees.

:: sigh ::

"Let us not look back in anger, or forward in fear, but around in awareness."
~ James Thurber

Friday, March 21, 2014

Happy Vernal Equinox

Yesterday was the first day of Spring. But with all the warm weather we've been having, signs of Spring have already been here for a while.

The first male Hooded Oriole of the season showed up about 2 weeks ago, followed by another male and 2 females. They are shy and difficult to photograph. We've been putting out sliced oranges and a feeder cup of jelly for them to enjoy.

Peaches and Nectarines are already forming on our trees. Looks like the Apricot tree might be a bust this year. It produced 4 flowers about a month ago, then went right to leaf. It has some new flowers now, so we'll see if they set fruit.

Last weekend we started noticing lots of Painted Lady butterflies, all headed in a northwest direction.

The Golden Butterflyweed is recovering quickly from the severe munching by the Monarch caterpillars. It is putting out lots of fresh new leaves.

One of our Ocotillos has started flowering. The bright red blooms look like flames on the tip of spiny, spindly candles.

Catkins are forming on our Mesquite trees. They will attract all sorts of pollinating insects.

Our Palo Verde tree is covered with buds that are starting to bloom. Palo Verde trees covered with bright yellow blooms are one of the prettiest trees in the desert.

The Salt Heliotrope patch in our front yard has been expanding. This is the plant that we were pulling as a weed, until we noticed how much the Queen Butterflies like it. We had to do some selective trimming, so it doesn't completely take over.

Another weekend in the 80's is in our local desert forecast.
Another beautiful weekend for working in the yard, before the hot weather hits.

"Just living is not enough... one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower."
~ Hans Christian Anderson

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Fine Kettle of.. Turkey Vultures

We were in the back yard this afternoon, enjoying the pleasant desert weather when we noticed a kettle of about sixteen Turkey Vultures soaring almost directly overhead.

Following them to the southeast was a second kettle of about fifteen more birds.

We watched them soaring effortlessly high in the thermal for about 15 minutes as they glided in wide random patterns. Then as if by a signal, they all gathered up and soared off together towards the northwest.

(The dark arch in the bottom picture is the underside of our tiled patio cover.)

These pictures are what you get when you blindly aim your point-and-shoot camera at the sky in super-zoom mode, and hope for the best. Considering how high up these birds were (and how huge the sky is), we were pretty surprised to get anything at all in the field of view.

Yes, we checked for Swainson's Hawks. No, there weren't any.