Unseen Drama ~ Wildlife CSI

On the surface, all seems quiet and stable in the yard.  The excitable exception is the small clutch of Gambel’s quail that was hatched in a flower pot and now runs free in a 4 walled wilderness.  However, we were recently reminded that there are many unseen dramas that take place only steps from our back door.

One afternoon, as my hubby was checking on a water valve about 20 feet from the kitchen door, he discovered evidence of one of those unseen dramas.

Upon lifting the cover over the valve, he discovered an empty nest belonging to a long gone pack rat or, maybe, a kangaroo rat.  We have both rodents in abundance.  Beside the nest was a shed snake skin.  One doesn’t have to have witnessed this little drama to understand the implications of the evidence.

Wildlife CSI-101.

The scene suggests that a pregnant rat of some variety found her way into the area under the cover of the water valve and built a nest in which she gave birth to an unknown number of pups.  The presence of the snake skin suggests that a snake, probably one of our resident king snakes, followed the rat’s scent, slipped through the small opening in the cover into the space where the nest was built, and ate the rat and her pups.  Having eaten such a large meal, the snake would not be able to slip back out through the same small opening.  The evidence further suggests that the snake remained under the water valve cover while it digested its meal, shed its skin, and finally exited when it once again fit through the small opening.

Just speculation.  Anyone care to offer another theory?

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Hosting the Next Generation III: They’re Everywhere!

The baby Gambel’s quail hatched out of the flower pot by the front gate a week ago.  We have been watching the clutch of eggs in the pot by the kitchen door for almost 3 weeks and wondering if they would hatch, too.  We had our doubts; the daily watering and the failure of the hen to sit tight when we came near made us wonder if this batch of eggs was viable.  At what point do we declare the clutch a dud?

On Thursday afternoon, I checked on the hen and I was surprised and pleased to see 3 little striped fluff balls snuggled next to her breast.  Great!  I really didn’t want to be the one to decide how long to give an egg to hatch.  I checked on the pot every half hour, noting the progress of the hatching as measured by additional tiny fluffy striped bodies; perfect in every quail way.  Life is a miracle in all its forms.

    

When the hen left the nest, I had a chance to check on the chicks.  All but one egg had hatched and there they were; 10 tiny little fluff balls staring back at me.  At this point in life, their only cool move was to freeze so they did.  I backed off and 2 leaped out of the pot.  OMG!  The parents, eager to get the chicks out of the nest, had been squawking and pacing below the pot, above the pot, and around the pot for several minutes.  When the 2 escapees landed, the hen, in her excitement, immediately stepped on both of them and took off for the asparagus fern at the edge of the patio.  The chicks recovered and followed mom in hot pursuit.  NO!  You can’t go yet; you have 9 other chicks still in the pot.  Is this her first clutch?  Doesn’t she know she has to wait for the rest of them?  Well, of course, I was a threatening monster on her horizon; better to save 2…

How many times can you say OMG?  The chicks were going crazy, cheeping frantically and running around inside the pot.  About this time, the drip system kicked in and sprayed the chicks.  They reacted with more hysterical cheeping and scrambled to get out of the way of the water.  Wet is not a good condition for newly hatched chicks; they don’t have enough insulation.  That newborn down mats to their skin when wet and the chicks easily succumb to hypothermia, even in summer heat.  They needed to get out of the pot.  They needed Mom.  However, Mom, Dad, and the 2 boldest siblings were nowhere in sight.  I could hear the hen fretting from the cover of the ferns.  I could see the male pacing and displaying on the wall, keeping an eye on the proceedings and offering encouragement to the hen. Or, maybe, he was threatening the monster; maybe both.

 

 

If left alone, the chicks might eventually get out of the pot and all would be well.  However, I don’t have that kind of patience and there were too many possible negative consequences of doing nothing; not the least of which was a pot full of wet, dead chicks.  I will leave wild creatures alone in the wild and, reluctantly, let nature take its course for both predator and prey.  However, flower pots and drip systems are human creations, unnatural in the desert and outside the genetic programming of quail DNA.  Human intrusion into their habitat had endangered them so leaving them to their own devices was not an option.  I began to scoop up the chicks and deposit them on the ground headed in the general direction of mom.  Had we had video, this operation probably looked like complete chaos.  I emptied the pot, checked for stragglers, and chased down the chick that had taken off in the wrong direction.  Thank goodness it went into defense freeze mode and it was easy to catch.  I had a moment when my brain registered soft, fragile, vulnerable, and…weightless.  Utterly amazing; only an hour or two old, this newborn chick was perfectly suited to finding its own food.  Right now, though, it was stressed and it needed a little assistance finding its mom, who was still making fretting noises.  I don’t know if she can count but I was still the threatening monster and I had one of her chicks.  I placed it on the ground and gave it a little nudge toward the ferns.  When the last chick disappeared into the safety of the asparagus fern, the fretting switched to soft comforting clucks.  I sighed in relief and, hoping that the watering system in that bed wouldn’t come on until the quail had left the ferns, I retreated to the house.  Darn!  They are so small; I hope they make it.  Even as the wish escaped my lips, I knew the reality.  Most of them would not.  As we learned last year from watching a clutch of 15 shrink to 7, quail attrition is high.  Well, they are in their element now and on their own.  Nature is a tough mother; we’ll see how they do.

In the days that followed, we have caught sight of the new family, all chicks still accounted for, scratching and pecking in various parts of the yard.  Most of the time, the male stands alert on the wall, the rock, the bench, any high place watching over his new family.  Sometimes, he joins them as they cruise the cactus garden, the rocks, and the flower beds looking for food.  I watch the chicks getting bigger and stronger and I think about what I am witnessing.  According to my biologist daughter, the hen will lay one egg each day for approximately 2 weeks.  Then, she and the male take turns sitting for 21 to 24 days.  The chicks, even the last laid; hatch all on the same day within the space of an hour or two.  How does that work?

Do all quail hatch simultaneously?  Is there a cosmic clock set to HATCH?  I have no idea but as I walk and drive through the neighborhood, I see only a few quail pairs without chicks.  There appears to be hundreds of chicks running around the desert.  Our critter cam is catching large numbers of baby quail as well.  Running through the snap shots of critters at the water dish, it is clear that one clutch after another is coming to drink.  Family units don’t seem to share the dish; they come in turn, one group at a time, and leave together.  We know we are looking at different clutches because of the differences in number and size of chicks in each clutch.  If the activity at this one little water dish is any indication, the desert is awash in baby quail.  Such is the nature of spring in the desert; this magical, glorious season when everything is working hard to renew itself and to continue the cycle of life.

The Yellow Time

I have always had a passion for wildflowers.  As a child, I collected and dried them, pressing them carefully between the pages of any available book.

My toddlers used to bring me wildflower bouquets and rocks, knowing I would treasure their gifts.  When we went on hikes, my teenagers often teased me for my frequent stops to smell the flowers.  My husband is so used to me lagging behind on hikes; he knows just where to find me when I disappear, scrutinizing and photographing the nearest patch of native flora.

Some folks might think that living in the desert would not give me much opportunity to enjoy spring and summer wildflowers but those folks would be dead wrong.  The Sonoran desert in southern Arizona is resplendent with wildflowers in spring, especially if we are fortunate enough to have had a wet winter.  Although pink, purple, magenta, white, red, and orange are well represented in Arizona wildflower displays; in April, the Sonoran desert is magnificently dominated by yellow.  Everything seems to turn yellow; cactus flowers, poppies, creosote, and a large number of other flowering plants show yellow but the dominant blooming belongs to the Palo Verde tree.

                                         

                                        

It begins in early April.  There are two main species of Palo Verde here, the foothill or yellow Palo Verde and the blue Palo Verde.  They take turns; one blooming early in April and other following in later weeks.  This makes for a long and gorgeous blooming season lasting through May.

Palo Verde trees are green all year.  Even the bark is green; hence the name, which means green wood or green stick in Spanish.  However, in April, the trees put every ounce of energy into blooming and the desert turns yellow with each individual tree producing thousands of yellow blossoms.  The Tohono O’odham, a local tribe of Native Americans, calls this the Yellow Time.  The only thing I have seen that matches the magnificence of the Yellow Time in Arizona is the April blooming of pink Sakura (cherry blossoms) in Japan.

I love this time of year.  I love the drifts of yellow blossoms that cover the ground (so do the leaf cutter ants).  I love driving in the desert and enjoying the miles and miles of yellow.  In summer, when all the trees are green, one has no idea of the multitude of Palo Verde trees out there.  In spring, there is no doubt and the Palo Verde trees are hands down the stars of the Arizona spring.

Enjoy more photos on the Yellow Time page.

Hosting the Next Generation II: They Hatched!

Shortly after discovering the quail’s nest in the flower pot outside our back door, I found another one in a similar flower pot by the front gate.  This is actually a pot within a pot.  I hadn’t quite gotten around to taking the plant out of its plastic container and planting it in the larger pot when the eggs appeared. What is it with these hens and high traffic areas?  Same deal; she bolts whenever anyone goes in or out the front gate.  Same deal; the pot gets watered every day.  Well, Wendy said the eggs get wet in the wild.  Eleven speckled brown and white eggs; we’ll just see what happens.

                            

The little hen by the front gate must have been there longer than the one by the back door.  Today, as every day, I sneaked up and checked on the hens.  The one by the back door was off her nest and there were still 11 eggs intact in the nest.  However, the nest by the front gate was full of broken eggs and feathers.  My first thought was that a predator had found the nest.  Abruptly, I became aware of two quite different fretful sounds.  One was coming from a male Gambel’s quail perched on a rock just across the driveway.  The high pitched fretting came from the female pacing back and forth in the drive way.  Before the next thought, I caught sight of a dark clump of striped, feathery chicks caught in the crevasse between the inner and outer pots and cheeping excitedly in response to the hen’s frantic calls.

When the inch high Gambel’s Quail chicks hatch, the mother immediately coaxes them out of the nest with high pitched calls.  Baby quail have to hit the ground pecking.  The hens usually nest on the ground where they are vulnerable to predators.  During incubation, the hen sits motionless.  Her coloring makes her extremely hard to detect and she can usually escape notice.  Once hatched, the mothers do not feed the chicks like tree dwelling birds do and the hen immediately moves the clutch away from the broken eggs, which smell tasty to predators.  Once the chicks hone in on mom, they jump out of the nest and run to her side.  Dad usually oversees this process from a high vantage point.  (How does he know when to show up, anyway?)  Once all the chicks are accounted for, the monogamous pair waddles off with their chicks in tow; mom leading the way and the protective dad bringing up the rear, herding the newborns along, ever watchful for predators.

Aha!  I quickly grasped the problem.  The chicks hatched, mom jumped out of the pot and called to the chicks; “let’s get going!”.  The chicks, being tiny, did their best but only managed to jump out of the nesting pot into the crevasse created by the double pots.  This was a dilemma for sure.  I knew what had to be done; I had to help the chicks out of the pot.  My fear was that the chicks, in their frantic efforts to reach the hen, might get hurt by trying to jump up the side of the pot.  I knew they couldn’t make it out.  They were too small, the pot was too deep and the top curved inward.  I wanted to wait for my husband to get home to help; however, not knowing how soon he would be home versus how long before the chicks would reach the limits of their ability to stay calm, I decided to get them out of the pot.

It took some finesse but I managed to lift out the inner pot in one smooth move; I hoped I wouldn’t drop it and crush a few chicks.  Now, they had room to move and, responding to the giant looming above them, move they did; scatter and scream must be the default fear response in baby quail.  Well, they couldn’t scatter very far; they were still in the pot.  During this maneuver, I became aware of even more frantic activity on the part of the parents.  The calls became louder and the pacing faster.  Now, what?  I thought about lifting them out.  I have always heard that birds will abandon their young if humans handle the chicks.  I don’t know if it is true but I didn’t feel like confirming this myth with 11 baby chicks on my hands.  I opened the gate, carried the pot out to the edge of the driveway and laid it on its side.  Nothing happened.  They were still in the pot.

I wanted to stay close and watch but I knew I had to step back so the parents could get the chicks out of the pot.  I retreated to the house and watched the chicks dart from the pot to the hen one and two at a time while dad kept a watchful eye on me and directed encouraging (I suppose) squawks to the family.  Finally together, the hen and chicks began to move down the driveway toward the cover of a row of sage.  The male stood his ground a minute more and watched me while the little family made their escape.  Deeming them safely out of my reach, he hurried to catch up and, just like that, they were gone.

So it goes with quail.  I silently wished them luck in keeping their chicks out of reach of the multitude of predators out there waiting for them.

For more information on Gambel’s Quail, go here.

Hosting the Next Generation

We love having the wild things use our yard and property to rear their young.  However, usually, we don’t like birds using our patio as nesting ground.  It gets messy and it can be a health hazard as well.  For that reason, we strongly encourage white wing doves to find a tree or bush away from the patio.  That usually takes the form of tearing down nests (if you can call 3 twigs a nest), if we see one on the patio.  Each spring, there are dozens of dove nests in our trees.  Trees are safer habitat.

However, from time to time, a clutch of Gambel’s quail is born in our back yard.  Actually, in our area, they are fulvous-breasted quail, a subspecies of Gambel’s Quail.  Last spring, a female cleverly concealed her nest under a large sage plant and we didn’t know she was there until there were 15 chicks running around pecking and scratching.  We learned a lot about quail that season as attrition carved the number down to 7 before they were big enough to leave the yard.  This was a complete surprise to us as we thought reduction in the size of the clutch occurred because of predator activity.  The quail are at the bottom of the food chain in the desert.  Even lizards will eat a chick if they catch one out of the nest and away from mom’s protection; there are a number of large collared lizards living on the property.  There is a king snake or two in the yard as well and we assumed they caught an occasional meal.  However, we also discovered that it is truly survival of the fittest, even within the relatively safe confines of the yard.  While cleaning up the yard last spring, we found a few dead chicks that apparently just were not strong enough to survive.

This spring, a female Gambel’s quail decided a large flower pot was a good place to nest.  This particular pot is on the patio right outside our kitchen door where there is a lot of human traffic.  We only discovered the nest because the female kept flushing each time we came near the pot.  Upon close examination, we counted a dozen brown and white speckled eggs lying in a well-constructed nest of soft leaf matter. I have to say, I don’t get the choice.  If housing is all about location, location, location, this is a really bad location for a bird that spooks easily. We pass by the pot often while coming and going, which disturbs the hen and she often bolts for open space. The pot itself, while large and offering excellent cover, is on a drip system and it is watered regularly.

For these reasons, I decided to remove the eggs. I was about to do so, thinking the eggs didn’t have much of a chance to hatch, when my hubby reminded me that we like having wildlife in the yard.  Yes,…but…  He also reminded me that our daughter, a wildlife biologist, pointed out last year that eggs get wet when it rains and they still hatch.  O.K…sigh…let’s give it a go.  Quail are not as messy as doves and, once hatched; the chicks leave the nest and hide under plants elsewhere in the yard rather than stay in the patio nest.

I was able to get good photos of the nest and eggs.  However, each time I try to catch the hen sitting, no matter how slow and carefully I move, she bolts.  After scaring her off the nest twice, I decided to stop peeking and let her be.

             

Gambel’s quail are monogamous though incubation is usually handled by the female.  Gestation lasts from 21-24 days and the chicks leave the nest with their parents within a few hours of birth.  I hope we are looking out the window when they hatch.  Otherwise, we will only find empty shells in the pot and miss their leap of faith from the pot to the ground.

The Big Reveal ~ a life lesson in delayed gratification

It took most of the winter to finish my first big batch of compost.  I am still amazed at how this process works.  Last autumn, I took out a small batch of dirt (my pilot project) that had only taken 5 weeks of late summer heat to cook.  With that small success, we headed into winter.  Winter composting, I learned, is a lengthier process.  Even though the days are sunny and relatively warm here in the desert, the winter nights are too cold to keep decomposition going.  This slows the process from a few weeks to a few months.

I spent autumn and early winter filling and cranking the bin.  I had resigned myself to accepting the reality that I would be waiting for this larger batch until spring.  After weeks of throwing kitchen scraps, paper products, water, and yard cuttings into the gaping maw of my composter, I declared it full.   That was about 8 weeks ago when the bin became too full to add anything else and heavy enough to make rotating the composter part of my morning workout.   Over the last 2 months, even though I was adding water, the bin became lighter and easier to turn.  Each time I peeked in, it looked more and more like dirt.

This has been a serious exercise in delayed gratification.  My usual process is to become very enthusiastic and excited about a new activity.  I pursue it at full throttle and I want to see results NOW!  Well, composting doesn’t get in a hurry.   This is the tortoise’s version of the race.  I learned to be patient and enjoy the process by developing a routine.  During the cold months, I turned the composter every other day.  I added water once a week until it looked like decomposition was mostly completed.  After that, I just cranked and waited as the weather grew warmer and the compost smelled more like potting soil.

Easter weekend was hot and it seemed as good a time as any to empty the composter.  As I opened the lid and stirred up the mixture, I was met with a pleasant, rich, earthy smell.  How does it happen?  Stinky old garbage into dirt?  What better alchemy is there?  There it was; dark and moist. The mixture bore no resemblance to former banana peels, egg shells, leaves, newspapers, or toilet paper rolls and the fruit flies were long gone.  Transformation had occurred; a microcosm of the cycle of life on the planet.  Lofty thoughts, I admit, for making dirt.

                                                          

Actually scooping out the soil was satisfying on several levels.  I had created something from trash and garbage that is going to feed and support new plant life. Recycling what I cannot consume leads to less waste and less garbage in the landfill.  I like that.  Since living in Japan where almost everything is recycled, I have become much more conscious of what I throw away.  It is a small part but I am doing my part; being a little more sensitive to the ecosystem and, however minimally, reducing my carbon footprint.  I feel good about making my own potting soil.  It is a small step and I have a long way to go toward being truly “green”.  However, as I said in my first post about composting, it all starts with baby steps.

I took out about six 5 gallon buckets of compost and distributed it into waiting pots.  Now, I get to do the fun stuff; make a trip to the nursery for new plants.

If You Fill It, They Will Come

The back of our property is divided into 3 parts.  One yard is enclosed within a slump block wall and easily protected from the local rabbit population. What we call our “middle kingdom” is surrounded by a chain link fence and the critters have fairly easy access.  Outside the fence, forgetaboutit.  The rest of the property is owned by the critters and we are good with that.

The Rabbits and other toothy critters will bite soft rubber drip lines for the water, especially in the hot months.  We don’t begrudge the wildlife the water.  In fact, we provide other water sources to encourage them to come onto the property.  However, on weekends, my hubby spends much of his time repairing the drip system.  About 3 years ago, he placed a large crock dish outside the fence of our middle kingdom and he ran a drip line though the fence to keep the dish filled with fresh water.  He placed a few small rocks in the dish for the baby quail and smaller birds. We wanted to provide a reliable water source for the local critters outside the fence; it gets hot out there.  We also hoped it would minimize damage to the drip lines.

If you fill it, they will come.

From the day he put out the water dish, my hubby has been talking about setting up a camera to see what/who comes to drink.  Over time, we have seen lots of different tracks around the dish and it is easy to see that the locals have established well-worn trails leading to and from the water.

Last year he bought the camera.  In winter, we didn’t see much in the way of action at the dish; mostly sparrows, white wing doves, and cotton tails.  Lately, the weather has warmed and we have noticed an increase in tracks around the dish so my hubby set up his camera.  This last week, traffic has been heavy and the camera has been busy.  We have caught images of many cotton tails, white wing doves, quail, cactus wrens, flickers, sparrows, finches, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, and pack rats.  The camera works both day and night.  Last night and this morning we scored big. In addition to a wide variety of birds and rodents, we caught a large coyote (or 2 or 3?) and one very casual, vigilant, and completely dominant bobcat.  When you are the top predator in the area, it seems that you can be as casual at the water dish as you like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is exciting on many levels.  We know a lot goes on out there of which we are completely unaware.  To catch even a tiny glimpse is great.  AND…this is the birthing season! The thought of watching the quail chicks and baby rabbits coming up to drink is exciting.  However, if we are able to catch the coyote pups and/or bobcat kittens; it would be a real coup.

I anticipate that this will be an on-going story and I will place the most recent photos on the Critter Cam page.