Monday, October 24, 2016

Thunder and Lightning and Rain (Oh Boy!)

We were happy to get more rain today, which came through in 2 bands. The first was an afternoon shower that lasted about 20 minutes. It was accompanied by distant thunder and lightning.

The second band hit after dark. It was a pretty good downpour, along with a roaring thunder and lightning show. We turned off the inside lights, and turned on the pool light to watch the rain come down.

Tomorrow's weather forecast is for muggy conditions and warm temps in the high 80's.

"Early impressions are like glimpses seen through the window by night when lightning is about."
~E. F. Benson, English novelist  (1867-1940)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Another Round of Monarch Caterpillars

Around the beginning of September we noticed that another batch of monarch caterpillars had hatched in our courtyard. Actually, we noticed that our Golden Butterfly Weed was looking pretty sparse, and initially thought there was a problem with the drip irrigation. When we looked closer we saw the caterpillars munching away on the plants.

They finished with the Golden Butterfly Weed, then moved over to the Desert Milkweed where they continue to feed and grow bigger.

When we pulled out our bucket of gardening tools to work in the yard, we noticed a surprise on the foam kneeling pad. Fortunately, we have other kneeling pads we can use while this one is in use.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Some Desert Rain (finally)

We had a much-needed day of rain on Tuesday. It started mid-morning and lasted into the evening. Daytime temperatures dropped into the 80's, which was a welcome change.

The rain was gentle enough to soak into the soil. If we get more rainy days like this, we may be able to look forward to a nice spring wildflower bloom. But it would take a LOT more days like this to end our multi-year drought.

"The rain is falling all around, it falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here, and on the ships at sea."

~Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child's Garden of Verses

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Assassin Bug

We were removing some dried sunflowers from our front yard, when we noticed a colorful insect flying past at about eye level. Initially, all we could see was a reddish blur.

It didn't look familiar so we followed it over to the sunflower plant it landed on, to see what it was. The insect landed on a leaf, then quickly crawled and hid on the underside. After a bit of searching (and patience), we were able to re-find it and get some pictures.

We compared our photos to one of our insect guide books, and found its identity:
Bee Assassin Bug, Apiomerus spissipes.

This colorful insect gets its equally colorful name from the practice of lying in wait for prey, then seizing and stabbing it with its sharp beak (proboscis).

It injects a digestive secretion which paralyzes the victim and liquefies the internal tissues. The fluids are then sucked out through the straw-like proboscis. The sharp beak is segmented, and can be folded back into a groove between the front legs when the insect is as rest.

The Bee Assassin Bug has strong forelimbs, with short hairs that help it hold onto its prey. In addition to bees, this predator also feeds on caterpillars, beetles, and insect pests such as flies and mosquitos. In spite of its name, its affect on the bee population is minimal so it is generally regarded as being beneficial in the garden.

Many people refer to any insect as a "bug", but bugs are actually a certain type of insect. True bugs (order Hemiptera) have specialized mouth parts made for sucking -  either plant juices, blood, or animal prey.

Other common true bugs include cicadas, leafhoppers, aphids, stink bugs, bed bugs and kissing bugs.

"Sometimes opportunities float right past your nose. Work hard, apply yourself, and be ready. When an opportunity comes, you can grab it."
~ Julie Andrews

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Desert Centipede

We found a large - and very lost - Desert Centipede in our house. It had likely come inside looking for a cool, dark sanctuary (not sure how our workout room fit into that plan...).  We quickly and gently guided it into a Tupperware container, and took advantage of the opportunity to get a few pics.

There are thousands of centipede species worldwide, and they live in varied habitats: from deserts and rainforests, to caves and even above the arctic circle! Our local desert centipede, Scolopendra polymorpha, reaches a length of 4-5 inches. There is a lot of variety in the coloration of this particular species, which explains the polymorpha part of its name. (The smaller centipedes we find in our garden are usually a beautiful shade of pale aqua-green.) Centipedes avoid daytime heat and bright light, normally staying hidden under rocks or bark, in leaf litter or crevices. They are most active at night, hunting for insects, small lizards and rodents that make up their diet.

Although the word "centi-pede" suggests hundred-legs, most centipedes don't actually have that many. Each segment of their body has one pair of legs, except for the first segment which has pair of modified pincers used for gripping their prey and injecting their venom. Although our local centipedes are not poisonous, they can administer a nasty pinch if threatened.

Desert Centipede has a lonely love life. Encounters between centipedes don't usually end well, since they are aggressive and carnivorous.  Male centipedes normally just leave a packet of their genetic material where they hope a female centipede may come across it, and impregnate herself with it. A more daring male may do a little dance  to entice a female to come closer.

When we finished taking pictures of the wayward centipede, we moved it outside and gently placed it on the shady leaf litter beneath our ruellia bush.

It quickly dove down into the leaf litter before I could even get the camera focused for a picture. The last couple segments of the centipede are barely visible in the center if this image, as it happily returned to a more comfortable and appropriate habitat.

"Be sure your put your feet in the right place, then stand firm."
~Abraham Lincoln

Monday, June 20, 2016

hot, Hot, HOT

Day 2 of our heat wave, with temperatures over 120º both days.
114º in the shade.

The rest of the week we'll be "cooling off" into the mid teens daytime.
High 90's overnight.

"Deal with the Devil if the Devil has a Constituency - and don't complain about the heat."
~ C. J. Cherryh

Saturday, June 11, 2016


We were jolted by a large earthquake very early Friday morning. The temblor hit at 1:04 a.m. and was centered near Borrego Springs, about 17 miles south of us.

There was an initial shock, followed by shaking that increased to a second large jolt. The shaking gradually tapered off after that. The entire quake lasted for about 35 seconds or so and was accompanied by a loud sound, sort of like a rumbling. We did not notice the aftershocks that occurred after the initial quake.

CREDITS: Both of the maps below are from the USGS web site

Here in the Golden State, small earthquakes are not unusual and occur often. Most of them are not even noticeable.

This one registered 5.2 on the Richter scale, and was definitely big enough to notice.

The Coachella Valley region is bordered and criss-crossed by a number of fault lines and shear zones, including the San Jacinto Fault Zone where this earthquake occurred. As a result, there are signs of geologic activity all around.

South of us at the Salton Sea there are boiling, bubbling pots of mud that break through a thin part of the earth's surface to form mini "volcanos" up to 6 feet high. The area has a number of geothermal plants that are piping super heated brine steam to the surface, and using it to boil water that spins turbines to generate electricity.

The famous San Andreas Fault starts at the Salton Sea and runs north and east through our valley. The fault zone continues in a northerly direction through California for over 800 miles and exits the state near Mendocino, north of San Francisco. The San Andreas is the dividing line between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, two huge sections of the earth's crust that are grinding past each other at the average rate of a fingernail's growth - about 2-1/2" a year. This is not a continuous motion, and sometimes there are snaps and jolts which we feel as earthquakes.

The mountains along the north side of the valley were created by this strike-slip motion. And at the foot of these mountains is a line of palm oases. Rain water and ground water are forced to the surface between the two tectonic plates, and this provides the constant moisture that palm trees need to flourish. If you drive along Interstate 10 in this area and look to the north, the palm oases are visible as dotted lines of green.

We did a walk through of our house after the quake, and there was no damage. Only one mirror had been knocked very slightly askew. Each earthquake has its own "personality", and as long-time California residents we have experienced a variety of quakes that rolled gently like being on a boat, others that rattled and shook, and some that were a series of sharp jolts.

When a larger earthquake does hit, there is always the question while the shaking is happening... is this going to be The Big One? Our southern section of the San Andreas Fault historically ruptures approximately every 150 years or so. Right now, we are 300 years overdue.

"Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues or earthquakes."

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ms. Hummer's Wild Ride

There is a hummingbird nest, in the peach tree right outside our dining room window. We can easily watch from the kitchen table as the hummer mom comes and goes from her nest.

The nest itself is built right at the end of a long branch. In spite of this location, it is out of direct sun for most of the day. However, during the past couple of weeks we have had some prolonged and gusty winds that whipped the branch around like a crazy carnival ride.

We kept an eye on her during these wind storms, and did not see her budge off of that nest. She sat tight as the branch swept back and forth. We really thought she would be catapulted off. But it was probably the safest place for her to be - winds can easily injure a tiny bird like her, so better to stay grounded while the high winds were blowing.

During breaks in the wind she would leave her nest to refuel at our hummingbird feeders. She would return to the nest with building materials in her beak, to shore up her nest. When the winds would pick up again, she would stay on her nest.

The winds have stopped for now, and we were able to quickly photograph the nest while she was off at the feeders. We were surprised to see she had included soft fluffy milkweed seeds from our butterfly garden. It is really a beautiful little work of art.

"Energy and persistence conquer all things."

~ Benjamin Franklin

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Tarantula Hawk

We were working in the yard today and noticed a VERY large dark insect flying around our desert milkweed plant. It had a heavy black body with an iridescent blue shine, and beautiful rust-colored wings. We immediately recognized it as a Tarantula Hawk wasp.

Following the wasp over to the milkweed plant, we saw that there was a second Tarantula Hawk already on the plant. It was busily crawling over the creamy white flower heads, drinking nectar from the blossoms. We soon found a third wasp on the back side of the plant, also enjoying the nectar. As we watched, 2 other Tarantula Hawks landed on the milkweed plant, making a total of 5 of these beautiful insects.

Two of the wasps were about the size of the last 2 joints of my pinky finger. The other 3 were slightly smaller.

There are 250+ species of these spider wasps that live worldwide. Each of these specializes in hunting a particular spider species. Fifteen spider wasp species occur in the US, and 9 of those are desert dwellers.

These Tarantula Hawks spend much of their time dining on nectar and pollen from desert plants such as milkweed and mesquite.

They are diurnal, but avoid being out during the very hottest part of the day. Roadrunners are one of the very few predators of this insect.

After mating, the female Tarantula Hawk must find and subdue a tarantula, which will act as a food source for her  offspring. It may be a tarantula that is wandering above ground in search of a mate, or in some instances she may even approach the entrance of a tarantula's underground burrow and entice it to come out by triggering the webbing at the entrance.

Either way, the tarantula faces certain doom.

The female attacks the stronger and much larger tarantula, and delivers her paralyzing sting. Once the tarantula is subdued she either drags it back into its own burrow or to a hole in the ground she has previously prepared. The helpless tarantula is secured in the burrow and the Tarantula Hawk lays a single egg on the paralyzed tarantula's body. She then seals the burrow and leaves her egg to hatch. The larvae will consume the paralyzed living spider over the course of about a month, spin a cocoon, and then eventually emerge the next season as an adult wasp.

Only the female wasp hunts, and her stinger is about a quarter inch long. The wasps are usually docile and don't normally have a reason to sting humans. However its sting is rated as one of the most painful insect stings, second only to bullet ants of central and south america. Medical attention is not normally needed, although the effects can last for a few days.

"The serpent, the king, the tiger, the stinging wasp, the small child, the dog owned by other people, and the fool: these seven ought not to be awakened from sleep."

~ Chanakya, Indian economist and political strategist  (350-275 BC)

Monday, April 11, 2016

One Little, Two Little, Three Little...


We have been watching our milkweed plants for Monarch caterpillars, and finally found three this morning. The largest was about an inch and a quarter long, and the other two were barely an inch. All three were happily munching away, well hidden in the long branchy stems of the milkweed.

You wouldn't think that something with bright yellow, black and white stripes would be hard to notice. But at this small size, those narrow stripes combine visually and make the caterpillars look greenish from a distance. The stems of the milkweed are also greenish, so the caterpillars are actually well camouflaged. As they get bigger, those bright stripes will be a warning to would-be predators that these caterpillars are not very tasty.

We took some pictures before heading to work, and then checked on the caterpillars again that afternoon. We re-found three caterpillars, and they were all noticeably larger. If these are the same caterpillars, they have grown considerably in less than ten hours.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Neighborhood Wildflower Walk

Here are some wildflowers we saw on a recent morning walk (thanks to the nice rain we've had so far this year).

SAND VERBENA - This plant grows in local sand dunes. In years with enough rain you can see massive fields of its purple flowers covering the open desert. It grows low to the ground.

BROWN-EYED PRIMROSE - Flowers are creamy white with brown spots in the center.


Arizona Lupine - Shades of lavender and purple on a stalk with palmate leaves.

Our neighborhood is mostly built out with homes, curbs and gutters. In spite of the urbanization there are still pockets of nature popping up everywhere, if you keep your eyes open.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

DETOUR! Construction Zone

A couple weeks ago we noticed some random sticks poking out of a birdhouse we had installed on our patio overhang. We kept an eye on the activity and soon discovered that a pair of Bewick's Wrens was moving in.

Bewick's Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) is commonly seen in our yard year round. It is a handsome little bird, about 5-1/2" long with a brown back, grayish-white below and a bold white eyebrow stripe. They are very vocal, and have a variety of scolding chatters and pretty little songs.

They are also very active and inquisitive. We often see them in our yard poking through leaf litter, probing along the block walls and actively searching through our trees for the insects and spiders that make up their diet. They also come to our suet feeders.

Three days ago the wren pair switched away from sticks, and started bringing in fluffy material to finish off their nest. The pair was working so quickly that sometimes they would run into each other while entering and exiting the nest hole. We supplemented their building material by placing dryer lint and hair from our hairbrushes in a nearby tree.

The bird house is right above our office door, and close to our front entry. We are detouring through the garage door on the other side of the house for the time being, to give the pair an undisturbed area to work in.

"The road to success is always under construction."
~ Lily Tomlin

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Can You Hear Me Now?

Friday afternoon we were sitting on our covered back patio, watching as a rain storm arrived. Clouds were rolling in, sky was becoming darker and we started to notice a few drops of rain in our pool. The  wind became stronger as the rain became heavier.

A Black Phoebe was fidgeting between perches as the weather turned - flying from the edge of our pool, up to the telephone wires, down to the block wall, into a tree. She started making some low passes right in front of us in our chairs, calling as she flew by. After about the third pass, we finally figured out we were probably keeping her from a sheltered perch on our covered patio.

Just a few minutes after we went inside, the phoebe came in to perch on top of the tall sunflower stalks we have drying on our patio. The rain only lasted for about ten minutes, but the gusty winds lasted into the night.

This evening we checked our patio around 6pm, and saw the phoebe had come in to perch on top of the sunflower stalks again. The stalks are not particularly stable, so we will see what we can do about making a more permanent roosting spot for her.

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."
~Stephen R. Covey, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change"

Monday, March 7, 2016

Wildflower Festival 2016

We had beautiful weather this past Saturday 5 March, for the annual Coachella Valley Wildflower Festival. The event was held in its usual location at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center in Palm Desert, CA.

Once again we attended as a vendor, and brought our handmade Bird Feeders, Bee Houses, Bird Houses and other items to sell, along with handouts and other info about building a backyard habitat. We also contributed a "Birds and Bees" gift basket for the raffle.

We brought two new items this time, which were best sellers at the event. The first is our new Insect Hotels, which are small wall-mounted wooden boxes with partitions filled with various natural materials. The materials inside the partitions (which include palm fiber, large seed pods, shredded agave fiber, trimmed sunflower stalks, mesquite bark and twigs) provide protected areas for insects to hide, nest and roost. They are rag-painted in various earthy shades using a non-toxic water based paint.

The second new best seller is screen printed tees in both youth and adult sizes. The new designs are "Let It Bee" with a large bee image, and a larger-than-life Palo Verde Root Borer Beetle. The design for that one was adapted from a photo I posted previously here on our blog. Shirt colors included yellow, sky blue, bright pink and kiwi green for the kids, and heather navy and sage green for the adults.

The CV Wildflower Festival is one of our favorite events to attend. Not only is it free to the public, it's family friendly, educational and a great reason to get outdoor and enjoy our beautiful desert.

"It is good to realize that if love and peace can prevail on earth, and if we can teach our children to honor nature's gifts, the joys and beauties of the outdoors will be here forever."
~ President Jimmy Carter

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bighorn Sheep

Last weekend we stopped by SilverRock Resort in La Quinta, for some quick birding at the clubhouse lake.

In addition to the expected usual species - Ring-necked Duck, American Coot, Mallard, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Snowy Egret, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Verdin, Mourning Dove, Yellow-rumped Warblers - we spotted 7 Canvasback (3 males and 4 females).

We also saw two groups of bighorn sheep.

One group of five males was on the opposite side of the pond from us. (The fifth male was off by himself, closer to the base of the mountains.)

Another group of three crossed the road right in front of us, as we were leaving.

Peninsular Bighorn Sheep (ovis canadensis) live in low elevation areas in our local desert mountain ranges, and populations occur south into Baja California. They were listed as a federally endangered species in 1998.

Bighorn sheep are greatly affected by habitat loss and fragmentation, caused by commercial development within their historic range. Natural factors include predation on an already reduced population, lamb mortality, and disease. In urban areas they additionally encounter dangers such as automobiles, poisonous landscape plants, and swimming pools. And in their native habitat research is being done on the presence of humans and dogs on hiking trails, and how that may disrupt bighorn sheep from historic lambing areas and watering holes.

Although it was exciting to see these sheep so close, they definitely do not belong on golf courses. Grass is not a part of their diet and eating it exposes them to pesticides, fertilizer and other chemicals. They are at high risk from predation as they get further away from their steep mountain escape terrain. And exposure to humans makes them less wary, which is also detrimental to their survival.

The Bighorn Institute in Palm Desert, CA is dedicated to investigating and researching the decline of bighorn sheep populations, both locally and world-wide. In addition to their research and treatment of sick wild sheep, they also maintain a captive-rearing and wild release program that has been extremely important in expanding our local bighorn sheep population.

Bighorn Institute website:

For info about proposed fencing for the bighorn at SilverRock resort:

Saturday, January 9, 2016

El Niño Has Arrived

The El Niño weather pattern has started to bring some much-needed rain to California over the past week. We received more than an inch of rain here in the desert, from three separate storms.

The surrounding mountains received a coating of snow. This is Mt. San Jacinto to the west of us (elevation 10,834').

The rains were steady and gentle, and much of it soaked into the soil. The Whitewater Wash had some runoff for about a day (below). This is looking north, towards Joshua Tree National Park. In the center of this pic you can just see snow on the mountains along the south edge of the Park.

There were Killdeer calling and running along the edge of the water while I took this photo. Probably glad to find a new bit of habitat, even if it's only temporary.

After the last storm moved through, we were gifted with clear blue skies, beautiful snowy mountain views - and overnight lows in the high 30's.

"I have never seen snow, and do not know what winter means."

~ Duke Kahanamokou, native Hawaiian and U.S. Olympic swimmer, credited with bringing surfing to the mainland and Australia.