Saturday, October 17, 2015

Desert Garden Community Day

Today we attended the 10th Annual Desert Garden Community Day, sponsored by our local Desert Horticultural Society. The event was held at the Living Desert Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Palm Desert.

The Desert Horticultural Society of the Coachella valley was founded in 2005 to "promote the use of desert appropriate plants that support local wildlife and conserve water".

With the increasing fragmentation of local desert habitat and our ongoing drought, these goals are especially important and timely.

The event brought together various non-profit groups, government agencies, educational facilities, local conservation projects and businesses that promote native plants, water conservation and drought tolerant landscape concepts.

There were also a number of free classes offered with topics covering lawn removal or reduction, proper pruning techniques, growing vegetables in the desert, plant propagation, the Monarch Project at Sunnylands, desert landscape design and water conservation among others.

After talking with the many exhibitors and taking a couple of the classes, we headed over to the Butterfly Garden to get some new plant and landscape design ideas for our yard.

The Butterfly Garden is beautifully landscaped with a variety of plants that provide food for caterpillars, nectar for the adult butterflies, and host plants for butterflies to lay their eggs on. There are also basking rocks for sunning, and mud areas for puddling.

The plants are labelled with common and scientific names, and many are for sale in the Living Desert's nursery.

The nursery also sells many other desert native and drought-tolerant plants as well as yard art, ceramic pots, and a good selection of books about desert gardening.

Desert Garden Community Day was a great opportunity for the public to learn about native plants and the work that these participating groups are doing to promote them. Big thanks to the staff and volunteers who made this informative and interesting event possible.

For more info:






>> Use the magic of Google to find similar types of organizations and events in your area!

Friday, October 16, 2015

A Little Rain...

When you live in the desert a little rain can be a big deal. In addition to the much-needed precipitation, another benefit is the amazing sunrises and sunsets that often accompany the rain clouds.

Here are a few pics from our early morning walks over the last few days. Kind of makes you feel sorry for the people who slept in and missed these...

Colors courtesy of the Supreme Creator, no Photoshop needed.
Thank you, God. Nice work :-)

"What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind,
if they do not enter into our daily lives?"

~ E. M. Forster  (English novelist, 1870-1970)

Friday, October 2, 2015

Lunar Eclipse - 27 Sept 2015

This total lunar eclipse on Sunday 27 Sept was special for a couple of reasons.

First, it occurred during a "super moon", which is when the moon appears slightly larger in the sky due to its relative closeness to earth in its elliptical orbit.

Second, it is the final lunar eclipse of a tetrad - a series of 4 total lunar eclipses occurring 6 lunar-months apart.

Third, it was easy to see because here on the west coast it began just after sunset. So no need to set the alarm to wake up at "what-the-heck-were-we-thinking" o'clock and wander outside to view while half asleep.

And finally, we had a convenient viewing spot with an unobstructed east horizon, less than a mile from our house.

All pics  were taken while holding our digital camera to the eyepiece of our 25x  field scope.

The moon rose already in partial eclipse. We soon noticed that there were some thin low clouds on the horizon. They created a band-like appearance across the face of the moon.

As the eclipse progressed we could notice the moon began to take on a reddish color. This is caused by the  sun's light passing through the earth's atmosphere on its way to the moon.

The redness became more pronounced as the moon passed deeper through the earth's shadow.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Paradise Lost

Our project this weekend was to clean out a pile of mesquite wood we had stacked in the back corner of our yard. The tarp and plastic covering the wood was breaking apart under the desert heat and sun, and long strands of bermuda grass were growing all over the pile and covering it up.

As we started to unstack the wood and move the logs aside, we were expecting an exodus of black widows, centipedes, scorpions and other critters that enjoy living in quiet, dark undisturbed places. Surprisingly, we only saw a few crickets and cockroaches but nothing like we had anticipated. We dug out the bermuda grass as the wood pile got smaller.

We finally cleared the stack and lifted up a pallet that had become partially buried below the pile of wood. Suddenly there was some movement and 2 large geckos bailed out from under the pallet, clinging to the block wall a few feet above the ground.

We v-e-r-y carefully put the pallet back down to figure out how to proceed. The geckos crawled back down to the pallet.

The geckos' home was basically gone. We had unknowingly cleared away their habitat. We had no idea how many more might be living there.

Our plan had been to do this project over a couple of days, but that would leave the geckos with no place to be safe from predatory birds and stray cats.

After thinking of a couple of options, we decided to temporarily recreate the habitat on our lot, directly adjacent to the other side of our wood fence.

We left the pallets in place, and dug an escape route for the geckos under the fence. The plan was to relocate the pallets one at a time, then restack the wood on top.

The new location on the other side of the fence was prepared. We carefully lifted the pallet again and this time 3 geckos appeared. Two immediately raced for cover behind the pool control box mounted a few feet away on the block wall. The third dashed in the opposite direction.

We waited a bit in case any other geckos were going to appear. There was no other movement so we moved the pallet to the new location and restacked the wood.

We finished carefully cleaning out the debris and bermuda grass where the pallet had been, and found one more smaller gecko.

We gently herded the little gecko to the gap under the fence and it zipped through to safety under the new wood pile.

One of the challenges of creating a backyard habitat is the possible consequences when changes are made. Raking leaves removes cover for lizards and beneficial insects. Trimming bushes may destroy butterfly chrysalises or praying mantis egg cases. Clearing away spider webs takes away hummingbird nesting material. Pesticides can kill not only the target "nuisance" insects but beneficials as well.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to evereything else in the Universe."  ~John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

Red Racer!

The geckos weren't the only ones to have their habitat disrupted by our clean-up. We found this gorgeous snake - a Red Racer - about a half hour after we thought we had finished in that corner of our yard.

Red Racer had only come out partially from under the storage box, but we could see he was a good size snake. About 2 feet of the body was visible, and it did not show any signs of tapering down to its tail.

He stopped with his head raised and occasionally tasted the air with his tongue, probably trying to figure out what had happened to his home.

Red Racers get their common name from their beautiful coloration, and their ability to move very rapidly. They can grow to be very large - to 6 feet in length or more.

Individual snakes can vary greatly in appearance and their coloring may be shades of pink and red, light brown or tan. They have large eyes and most have darker patterns on the head.

Red Racer is a diurnal snake, which means it is out and about during the day. It is an active hunter, eating whatever it can overcome and crush with its jaws. This may include lizards and other snakes, birds and road kill. It can climb into bushes and trees so nestling birds and bird eggs can also be part of the diet.

Although Red Racer is not poisonous, it will defend itself by striking or biting if threatened or handled.

We didn't want to scare him so we stepped away. He came out a bit further from under the storage box, and moved towards the pool control box on the wall where two of the geckos had hidden themselves earlier. Red Racer started to crawl upwards along the wall, then made a fast lunge towards the box. One of the geckos zipped out from behind, dashed across the block wall, and disappeared behind the bamboo fencing a few feet away.

We figured our Red Racer had had a challenging enough day so far, so we left him in peace while we figured out how to reconstruct his habitat.

This is a new snake species for our yard, and brings our yard list snake species total to 5: Red Racer, Desert Blind Snake, Shovel Nose Snake, Black-headed Snake, and Gopher Snake. It is amazing that our yard can support a snake this size, and even more surprising that it has obviously been living here for a while.

We will be rethinking our plans for this corner of the yard, to make sure he has a safe place to live.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

First Flight

The hummingbird babies left their nest on Thursday 9 April, 21 days after hatching.

The two of them had gotten so big that they no longer fit in the nest.

They were constantly moving about, fluttering their wings, and generally looking ready to go.

Mom Hummer continued to feed them, but also spent a lot of time hovering and circling next to the nest. It looked like she was demonstrating and encouraging them to fly.

While she was gone, the babies kept fluttering and cautiously trying out their wings in the safety of their nest.

We saw one perch on the edge of the nest and briefly lift off for a few seconds before landing back in the nest.

They kept fluttering and hovering briefly, then landing before trying it again.

And eventually, one of the times we checked back, they were both gone.

We soon saw them both at the nearby hummingbird feeder.

They were easily recognized by their smaller size and relatively shorter beaks in comparison to the adult hummers that also frequent the same feeder.

The two youngsters appeared to be staying close together - coming to the feeder at the same time or within just a few seconds of each other. Mom Hummer kept a close eye on them, hovering nearby and dive bombing any bird that looked like it might threaten her babies.

Good luck, little guys.
Have a good life. :-)  :-)

"Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."
~ Leonardo  da Vinci

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Stretching Their Wings

The hummer babies are about 19 days old, and have grown quickly in size.

A little while ago we could only see them when they lifted their tiny heads for Mom to feed them.

Now we can see them from across the patio.

They are very aware of their surroundings and turn their heads constantly as they look all around.

There is a lot of fidgeting and jostling going on as they shift position, and stretch and flutter their wings.

They are moving around a lot, and the sides of the nest are starting to get flattened.

Sometimes Mom Hummer has a hard time trying to find an edge to perch on when she feeds them.

We also noticed Mom is changing her behavior. She is extremely aggressive at the nearby hummingbird feeder, chasing away other birds.

A couple of days ago we saw her chase a male Costa's hummer under a patio chair, and keep him cornered there for a couple of seconds.

Yesterday she chased a Verdin off the feeder and into a nearby hanging spider plant.

Mom Hummer is also spending more time hovering around the nest, instead of flying directly to it and perching right away. Maybe she is encouraging the babies to fly? They flutter their wings in response to her behavior.

"If you were born without wings, do nothing to keep them from growing."
~ Coco Chanel

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Lunar Eclipse - 4 April 2015

Here are some pics of this morning's lunar eclipse.
These were taken with a digital camera hand-held to the eyepiece of our 25x field scope.

We got up around 4:15am, and the eclipse was already in progress.

The high contrast of the moon's bright surface against the dark sky blew out most of the earliest shots of the eclipse.

During this eclipse, the moon was just skimming through the outer portion of the earth's shadow, so the time of totality was very brief - only about 5 minutes.

Here in California, totality occurred just before 5am PDT.

The partially eclipsed moon eventually set behind the mountains to the west of us, so we couldn't see the end of the eclipse from our location.

This was a pretty cool way to start the day.
:-)  :-)

The next lunar eclipse visible from North America will be on 28 September 2015.
For more info about that and other future eclipses:

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Insert. Food. Here.

The hummingbird babies are about 11 days old now, by our best guess.

Because of the overhead location of the nest, we have to estimate the approximate hatch day based on when we first saw Mom Hummer's baby feeding behavior.

Mom is working from before sunrise until after sunset to keep her babies fed. They are eating machines.

The babies are generally pretty calm while mom is away. They sit very still in the nest with their little beaks pointed upwards, waiting for their next meal.

When mom arrives, they start begging and gaping.

Mom is really good about feeding them both; we can see her moving side to side so they each get their turn.

The babies are most active right after she leaves. Their eyes are open now and occasionally they peek out at the world over the edge of the nest.

Their beaks are getting longer and looking more like a hummingbird.  Tiny little body and wing feathers have appeared, and we saw one of the babies make some tentative wing flapping motions.

Sometimes the babies are fidgety, and the nest stretches and gets a bit misshapen as they jostle about. They both still fit inside the nest, but mom hummer has not sat on the nest with them for a number of days.

This is one of the babies, right after mom finished a feeding.

"Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.
~ George Washington

Monday, March 30, 2015

Baby (Hummer) Pics

We continue watching the hummingbird nest on our back patio, using the field scope set up in our kitchen.

Right after the eggs hatched, mom hummer appeared fidgety when sitting on the nest.

Probably because she was now sitting on 2 wiggly babies instead of 2 eggs.

Mom hummer was staying busy, constantly making forays out into the yard to gather insects and nectar, then returning to the nest to quickly feed her babies.

We also noticed that the babies had started pooping over the side of the nest.

Every now and then we would see a tiny bare-naked hummingbird butt appear above the edge of the nest, and proceed with the projectile pooping.

This is a natural behavior, which helps keep things cleaner inside the nest.

It took a while before we could get a picture of mom and her babies together.

They were so small we couldn't see them above the edge of the nest unless they were feeding (or pooping).

And her feeding stops were surprisingly brief and efficient.

With patience, we were finally able to get a baby pic just as mom left the nest after a feeding. One is easily seen, with its short little beak and big eyes.

"Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way."
~ John Muir; Author, naturalist and wilderness advocate (1838-1940)

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Little Help, Here...

A couple of days after we found orange aphids on our Milkweed, we had a ladybug show up on one of the flower heads.

Ladybugs are natural predators of aphids and other soft-bodied insect pests. A single ladybug can eat up to 50 aphids per day!

Ladybugs go through 4 steps in their life cycle. Female Ladybugs lay their eggs on the underside of leaves, or in other hidden and protected areas. The eggs hatch into larvae that look like a black and orange miniature crocodile.

The larva starts eating, and will shed its skin a number of times as it grows. The larvae will eventually pupate and finally hatch out to become the ladybug beetle we all recognize.

We are hoping s/he brings more friends to dine on the aphids.
There are plenty to go around...

"Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing..."
~ Christina Georgina Rosetti, British poet and lyricist (1830-1894)

For more information about Lady bugs:

Friday, March 20, 2015

Hummingbird Babies!

We are proud to announce the arrival of twins.
They hatched early this morning (Friday).
Mom hummer and her babies are all doing fine.
She is working continuously to keep them fed and protected in their nest.

Approximate size of a baby hummingbird:
-- Length - about an inch
-- Weight - a little over half a gram (3 baby hummers = the weight of one US dime)

For 2-1/2 weeks we have been using the field scope set up in our dining room, to watch mom hummer sitting on the nest. This morning for the first time we saw her perched on the edge of the nest, as she fed each baby in turn. Her head bobs up and down in a sewing machine-like motion as she transfers the pre-digested food into their gaping mouths. After each feeding she settles back in to the nest to keep the babies warm. The babies are very tiny now, and their naked heads barely show above the edge of the nest as they are feeding.

Hummingbird babies need protein to grow - they cannot survive on just nectar or hummingbird food. The food that mom hummer regurgitates for them includes small insects that she catches in flight. We see her in the backyard zig-zagging through the air as she chases their next meal, or searches plants and spider webs for insects.

This is an excellent information source, for everything you could want to know about hummingbirds:

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Elsewhere in the Garden...

The solitary bees started hatching out of our bee-obelisk this past weekend, as daytime temperatures reached the low 90's. Recent cool weather since then has slowed them down a bit, but that will be changing soon.

Two days ago we found three new Queen Butterfly caterpillars on the Desert Milkweed in our courtyard. Looks like we will have another round of butterflies in a couple of weeks.

There was a flock of about 20 Cedar Waxwings perched in our tallest mesquite tree yesterday morning.

Off by itself in a lower branch of the same tree was a single Western Kingbird, the first one we have seen this season.

What we originally hoped were orange butterfly eggs on the milkweed plant are actually orange aphids.

Rather than using pesticides, we'll clip and remove the affected stems if it looks like the aphids are getting out of control.

There are at least 2 verdin nests in our mesquite trees. Mockingbirds likely have a nest in one of the other mesquites. They have been extremely temperamental, territorial, and vocal - even more so than usual.

The palo verde tree is starting to produce buds and will soon be covered in yellow flowers.

"Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Any Day Now....

The female hummingbird continues sitting on the two eggs in her nest, on top of the hummingbird feeder. She makes quick forays out for food, or to chase away other birds that are coming too close. Sometimes she'll take a brief sunbath on a nearby perch, but she is never away from the nest for very long.

A potted aloe right below her nest is blooming now, and she has added its yellow tubular flowers as a convenient feeding stop. Her eggs should be hatching soon and we have been watching discretely through the kitchen window. The scope in the dining room is working well, and the pic above was taken with a camera hand held to the eyepiece.

In the front yard, our agave flower stalk is now over 10-1/2 feet tall.

We have selectively trimmed branches from the nearby palo verde tree (three times!), to make room for the stalk as it kept getting taller.

Today we staked the stalk, to lean it away from the canopy of the palo verde.

It's hard to see from the ground, but the flowers at the tip of the stalk are just beginning to show.

"One of the most delightful things about a garden is the anticipation it provides."
~ W. E. Johns, English aviator, author and editor (1893-1968)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

St. Patrick is one of the patron saints of Ireland, but he was actually of Romano-British descent. His name was originally Maewin Succat and he lived in Britain during the 5th century AD. As a teenager, he was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland where he was forced to work as a slave tending sheep for many years.

Eventually he escaped from Ireland and returned to his home and family in Britain. The many years spent praying in captivity brought him to the priesthood, and he took the name Patrick when he was ordained. Years later he became a bishop, and was sent to Ireland as a missionary. There he used his knowledge of the language and customs to establish churches and convert heathens to Christianity.

Shamrocks are associated with St Patrick because he is purported to have used them as a way to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to potential Christian converts.

Another legend about St Patrick is that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland. There are no fossil records of snakes in Ireland, so it is more likely that glaciers and cold weather kept snakes away.

March 17th is the day of St Patrick's death.

"I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain."
~ from the writings of St. Patrick