In March, I journeyed back to the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. The big draw was an annual migration of Swainson’s hawks and the emergence of big colorful caterpillars, but as it happened, a third phenomenon blossomed simultaneously.
Big colorful caterpillars emerge every spring in Anza-Borrego.
They are the larvae of the white-lined sphinx moth and appear in various color combinations, from yellow with black stripes, to black with yellow stripes, to green with black stripes.
The caterpillars, sometimes called hornworms, feed on many types of flowers and plants, while the moths seek nectar.
The striking moths, also known as hummingbird moths, can be quite beautiful.
What I witnessed was the part of the life cycle when the larvae hatch and proceed to munch out on the desert flowers and plants.
It just so happened that this year the little guys were even luckier to hatch during a “superbloom,” a time when bountiful winter rains have produced carpets of wildflowers across the desert.
After eating nonstop and growing to 3-4 inches in length, the time comes for the next phase of their lives. The caterpillars burrow into the sand and pupate into a form that remains underground for 8-15 days. Then, the big transformation occurs and the moths emerge!
The moths spend their nights feeding and pollinating wildflowers, and then lay eggs on the undersides of flowers. The entire life cycle begins anew when the eggs hatch into very small caterpillars that begin to eat 24 hours a day on the flowers.
At the same time, Swainson’s hawks are making their way north from South America. They spend time in the desert around Borrego and have been known to feast on the caterpillars. Birders gather daily for the hawk watch. It was a gamble where or when they might be spotted. During my visit, I was disappointed to see that the hawks were in kettles a great distance away. Meer specks. I had expected to see them near the ground picking off the fat worms.
Unfortunately, I could not stick around long enough for the emergence of the moths, but I bet that’s something to see!
When I went for a long walk recently, I didn’t expect to discover hidden treasures. I walked down to the High Point pond, just a few blocks from my house. My usual route takes me around the pond, where I check out who’s there.
This day there were mallards, American wigeon, a cormorant, and gulls.
But I wanted to extend my walk and explore some new areas. High Point is a huge redeveloped area, with a variety of homes and landscapes. It’s a planned community, with mixed housing for single families, low-income families, and seniors.
There are rain gardens, permeable sidewalks, community gardens and green spaces. The planners did a good job of saving many monstrous mature trees, and a few are labeled. Today I noted a Lawson cypress, which I first thought was a Western cedar, along with a grand specimen of big-leaf maple, called “Papa.”
Along the way, I found these delightful pillars celebrating the Longfellow Creek watershed.
They are composed of blocks of concrete with carved and inlaid creatures representing plants, lizards, fish, birds, a fox and a dragonfly.
I love that nature is appreciated here. There are many immigrant families and children living in this community. I think it’s important to instill knowledge and appreciation of our local natural history. Nearby is also a bee garden, complete with a small building enclosing the hive and a flower and vegetable garden to nourish them.
As I turned down a street that I’d never walked or driven before, I discovered an intriguing sight: something out of a Greek ruin, or perhaps a group of standing stones from the British Isles.
A structure, similar to a pergola, but I’m not sure exactly what to call it, stands in front of a hillside that has large stones scattered about.
The structure is supported by posts with carved wood that portrays such birds as owls and herons.
And, even more fabulous, the concrete walk between the structure and the hillside is incised with a large winged creature reminiscent of the mysterious Nazca “geoglyphs” of Peru!
In a previous post, I wrote about the amazing big leaf maple trees in my local park, Camp Long. Not only are they big in height, but also in girth, with a growth habit of multiple trunks.
But I just visited another gem of a city park, much larger than Camp Long and having an unmatched range of habitats, elevations and vegetation. I’m talking about Discovery Park, located across Elliott Bay from West Seattle. Within the park’s more than 500 acres, there are trails through open meadows, trails through woods, ponds, beach access, views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, and a lighthouse. It’s good bird habitat.
I went specifically to see if I could find a snow bunting that had been seen there for several days. I did not find it, but in the course of hiking all over the park, on trails I had never before taken, I encountered numerous startling large trees. Not only did they have multiple trunks, but they had more than I could count!
In Camp Long, I kind of made a game of counting the number of trunks on big leaf maples. I had decided that the average number was between six and eight. But in Discovery Park, the trees were more complicated.
In many instances, they had so many thin trunks reaching out that it was impossible to count them all. Why were they so different from trees growing in Camp Long? For one thing, trees in Discovery seem to have much more room to spread out and grow. They’re not as crowded. Maybe they spend more time growing out rather than up.
Whatever the reasons, the trees are magnificent and I’m glad they have been preserved. I snapped a few photos of the more impressive specimens along my walk.
Even what starts out as the most mundane neighborhood walk can turn into something more interesting. I am always checking out the trees, shrubs and flowers that I pass, and always watching for birds. Lately I’ve been taking a new route just a few blocks from my house, down the big hill to a redeveloped community known as High Point. Incidentally, it is located near the official highest point in Seattle.
I’ve been drawn to my particular route because it passes the large community garden, and one block beyond that lies a nice little pond.
On the way, I pass such flowers as hollyhocks, sunflowers and lupines that ring the vegetable garden. Lining the street are notable trees that are dropping large seed pods.
I recognized the somewhat floppy-looking leaf as being in the filbert family. I have never seen the seeds before, which I assume become nuts like the familiar little round filberts that I recall from mixed nut tins we sometimes had in the house in my childhood. Those nuts that seemed like cheap fillers; they were not my first choice.
Invasion of the Tribbles?
I think perhaps these trees are not the same as the commercially raised American hazelnut trees, but very similar. The large rather frilly bright green seed pods contain several chambers for nuts, and when you touch them they leave a sticky substance on your fingers! Several seed pods were strewn on the sidewalk, looking like the tribbles from Star Trek. Most were empty of their nuts. I assume the squirrels are enjoying them.
Life around the pond is somewhat unpredictable. The mallards that stay there are predictable, but some days there are Canada geese.
The number of mallards varies from day to day. I think some are this year’s young. The ducks are unknowingly artistic, making lovely patterns on the water as they paddle around. I observed them creating perfect horizontal lines, circles and Vs.
A couple times I’ve a seen a kingfisher, which is pretty cool. I’ve even heard a kingfisher rattling by from my bedroom window a couple times. Now I know I wasn’t imagining things, and I now know where it was going or coming from.
I have discovered fish in the pond! No wonder the kingfisher was fishing around there. They appear to be goldfish. There are little orange ones and a blackish one. I wondered if they had been officially stocked in the pond, or whether some neighbor had dumped them there. I decided it didn’t really matter. They probably weren’t hurting any particular ecology.
In fact, the pond seems to be getting choked by whatever the green plant is that grows in ponds and chokes them. The same thing is happening in the pond at the park next door, and door, and I wonder if the right thing to do is dredge some of it out.
One day I was surprised by two white-crowned sparrows in some shrubs by the pond. They’re around Seattle, but uncommon. I almost never see them in my yard.
There is a nice variety of habitat circling the pond. There are trees, shrubs for covers, grassy areas, and a rushing brook and waterfall that empties into the pond. Queen Anne’s lace, clovers and thistles grow in small clumps.
I’ve watched dragonflies patrol the air over the pond and I’ve seen goldfinches gliding overhead.
When the sun shines, a walk around the pond is warming and happy. When there are clouds, there are magical reflections across the surface of the pond.
It’s a small thing, likely taken for granted, overlooked and little used by nearby residents, but for me, the pond is a fresh destination.
The baby chickadees have fledged. I suddenly realized I should probably clean out the nest box.
This is my first experience hosting a bird nest! I watched the Black-Capped Chickadees build their nest in my birdhouse. I watched as the adults flew to the box with something in their mouths. I assumed they were nest building. I left mounds of cat fur for them and apparently, they used it.
Weeks went by, as I watched the adults flying to and fro. After a while, I realized I hadn’t seen any activity coming and going from the birdhouse and wondered whether I had missed the young fledge. I watched and listened in my yard for baby birds. Sure enough, I began to hear what sounded like baby chickadees begging. It’s not hard to distinguish the sounds of the young from adults. They were still close to home!
It was then that I wondered whether the pair would have a second clutch. I did a little research and learned that it was possible, but not certain, and that if they were to start another nest, it could be pretty soon. So I decided to clean out the birdhouse.
I was eager to see the nest. I carefully removed the back door and peered inside. It was not what I was expecting. For some reason, I was expecting to find the standard round nest, a perfect circle. But instead, there was a thick bed of moss, lined with bits of fluff and fur. This is typical chickadee nest material. What a plush, comforting, supportive bed for eggs and chicks!
About this time of year, I start to notice the activity around my neighbor’s large cherry tree. Some of its branches arch over my backyard, though not low enough to pick any of the fruits now. I have tasted a few in the past and they aren’t bad.
This is a tree of many gifts. In the spring it graces us with its soft pink blossoms that have the effect of making the tree glow. After a couple weeks the petals loosen their grip and float on the air like pink snow.
Months later, after the tree has become a uniform shade of green, its true destiny begins to emerge. Tiny green fruits appear with the promise of a summer bounty. Weeks later, they slowly transform from green to a yellowish pink and pale reddish. During this time, I watch the ripening progress, knowing what is to come.
Then one day, some berries are fully red. Several years ago, I stood on my deck and watched a raccoon, at eye level, happily munch away on the cherries. This year I’ve seen no raccoon, but now that the fruit is ripe, the birds are wasting no time.
Robins fly into the tree and grab cherries, swallowing them whole. I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings do the same with Oregon grapes. How astonishing that a tiny mouth can open far enough to take in the berry, and then, even more astonishing, swallow it whole! It’s akin to a person swallowing a football! The cherries, however, are not as huge as the Oregon grapes.
Chickadees, Black-Capped and Chestnut-Backed, peck away at the fruits. I’ve also seen House Finches and House Sparrows partaking of the free repast. But the Steller Blue Jays, with their huge bills, don’t appear to eat the cherries. I would think they, of all the birds, would be devouring more than anyone else. We have hoards of the great, raucous birds.
I would also think woodpeckers would like the fruit. I once observed a Pileated Woodpecker in Maryland that was perched amusingly on a small spicebush shrub, eating its dark ripe berries. But I have seen no woodpeckers in the cherry tree.
When all the cherries have been eaten, I wonder what the next adventure will be for the birds.