Saturday, December 30, 2017

Labor Day Lizards, Bugs, and Public Lands

This post should have been published back in September. Somehow I started but never finished it. I hope it is better late than never.

Labor Day weekend reminded me of why I love living in northern Utah. I had Saturday and Monday mornings to spend off the beaten path hunting down lizards and 4-wheeling on some hillsides in our local desert. I had just returned from a trip to Kentucky where most of the land is privately owned. Don't get me wrong. I love my home state of Kentucky, but I have grown very fond of and come to treasure the vast expanse of public lands here in the west. I have a wandering spirit that needs to roam, explore, and discover. Venturing into public lands here in Utah is medicine for my soul, a needed charge to my batteries. It's ironic, but exploring the arid deserts of the west quenches my thirst for exploring and discovering.

I spent Saturday morning exploring Soldiers Pass and the sagebrush-juniper habitat around the south end of Lake Mountain in Utah County. Below is an image showing the view from the summit of Solders Pass looking east toward the south end of Utah Lake.

Heading west on Soldiers Pass Road.

A few side-blotched and sagebrush lizards were out soaking up the sun as I hiked along a rocky ridge, but this robber (aka assassin) fly caught my attention for a few minutes. This is one of nature's aerial fighting machines. They often ambush and take out other flying insects midair.

This image of a male common side-blotched lizard was captured with my long lens.

The following video and images were captured using my phone after I managed to snag a few lizards.

My target lizard for the day was Desert Horned. I essentially gave up on finding one after scouring several ideal locations and coming up empty. I called my wife to let her know I was on my way home and began to drive down a gravel road toward a paved highway. Thanks to a little luck in terms of timing and my 20-15 vision I noticed a small creature scurrying across the path ahead of me. I had second thoughts when I initially ignored my impulse to stop, go back, and check it out. My curiosity had to be satisfied so I pulled off to the side of the road and walked back to search for the creature of interest. The tiny creature turned out to be a young Desert Horned Lizard and fortunately for me it was having trouble scaling the loose dirt that formed a steep climb along that side of the road. This phone image provides some perspective on the size of the lizard.

I captured a few images using my long lens as the lizard explored the bed of my truck.

And a couple of images after returning the diminutive dinosaur back to its natural habitat.

Labor Day morning was spent around an area called Chimney Rock Pass.

Chimney Rock Pass proved more productive in terms of the number of lizards I ran across.

The best lizard discovery turned out to be a Western Fence Lizard that was sunning on a lichen-covered boulder. This one was about seven inches long.

Another stop along a dirt road on the west shore of Utah Lake turned up a few Whiptails, bees, and dragonflies. I believe the dragonfly is some type of meadowhawk.

I felt like I had been on a safari without going very far from home as the holiday weekend came to a close.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Great Horned Owl Preening

The day after Christmas was a work holiday so I spent most of the sunny but cold morning cruising for raptors in some of my favorite winter raptor locations. I enjoyed observations of eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls. A pair of sleepy Great Horned Owls offered a few minutes to study and photograph them. One of the owls, which I believe to be the male since it was noticeably smaller than its mate, slowly fluffed its feathers and proceeded to preen as I was capturing a few images from within my truck on the side of the road.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Topped Off With a Tarantula

The morning was shaping up to be rather anticlimactic this past Saturday as I was searching for critters in the desert about forty minutes from my home. A few scorpions, a couple of species of lizards, some desert birds, and a handful of rabbits, including one that was being hauled off as prey by a great horned owl, were fun to see, but none of those were on my target list for the morning.

My top two targets were desert horned lizard and tarantula. I was hoping to find one or both so I could make them the subject for my practice with macro photography. I spent my initial time at dawn cruising the rough roads that meander through the sagebrush and juniper habitat with hopes of spotting a wandering male tarantula. They aren't often seen, but dusk and dawn are good times to look for them, especially during breeding season when the males are driven by their genetic programming to wander around looking for love near a female burrow. After an unsuccessful attempt at cruising for the big spiders I went on foot and decided to methodically course ideal habitat for desert horned lizards, gravelly, east-facing hillsides warmed by the morning sun. I came up empty again despite my strategic and persistent approach to locating my target species.

Listening for and locating some desert birds provided a break from the fruitless efforts to find the horned lizard and tarantula, but I eventually decided to try one more time to locate a horned lizard when I spotted some ideal habitat rising up from a small wash that was just down hill from me. I weaved my way through a maze of sagebrush as I headed down the hill and was just about to cross the wash and push up the next hillside when the prize of the day came into view--a male tarantula was basking in the sun at the base of a bush just to my left. I went from a desert wanderer on autopilot to the excitement level of a kid in a candy store when I realized my morning was being topped off with a tarantula. I was sliding around on my belly on the desert floor just like my grandkids slide around on our luxury vinyl tile in order to capture most of the images I'm sharing in this post.

Male Tarantula Utah County, Utah
The image below was an attempt to get a tight focus on the tiny eyes at the top of the spiders head. They aren't easily discerned unless one knows what to look for, but they form a small dark bump at the front of the tan-colored head.

Macro Focus on the Tiny Eyes of a Male Tarantula Utah County, Utah
Here is a heavily cropped image to show more detail of the tarantula's eyes and head. There are some fangs that can deliver venom behind what looks like long whiskers.

Macro Focus on the Tiny Eyes of a Male Tarantula Utah County, Utah
I captured a few more images as the spider was attempting to put an end to our private little photo shoot.

Male Tarantula Utah County, Utah

Male Tarantula Utah County, Utah

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Miss Carolina, Queen of North American Wolf Spiders

A few years ago I was enjoying a night ride on my mountain bike in our local foothills. I was wearing a headlamp that night because I was using eye shine to locate nocturnal creatures as they were looking in my direction from their dark hiding places along the hillside.  Eye shine occurs when light reflects from tapetum lucidum, a layer of special tissue in the eyes of many vertebrates. I needed to have the light source near my own eyes so I could see when the light reflected back from the eye shine displaying critters. I located jackrabbits, cotton-tailed rabbits, raccoons, foxes, deer, and common poorwills (nocturnal bird species) during that particular ride. Somewhere along my ride that night the eye shine from smaller creatures caught my attention. I stopped to investigate the owner of one of those smaller eye shines. I approached it, put a spot light on it, and discovered a very large spider. I almost did a happy dance as I thought that I might have found my very first tarantula. It was a large, hairy spider--larger than any spider I'd seen before. The face of the giant spider was quite hairy. I took a few photos of that spider and shared them with some spider experts only to discover that it was actually a Carolina Wolf Spider. Until that night I was unaware of the fact that many spiders have tapetum lucidum. I also discovered that the female Carolina wolf spiders are North America's largest wolf spiders, the queens of wolf spiders.

I found a few large females recently and played around with capturing some macro images of one this morning while hiking with my son, Jason. If you are not a spider expert (which I am not) you'd probably think this is a tarantula, wouldn't you?

I asked my son, Jason, to put his finger in the frame for the next image to a relative size comparison.

Unfortunately I got the spider a little dusty while trying to get it to cooperate with me. The dust particles make it difficult to see that the spider actually has eight eyes. The image above sort of shows the four larger eyes at the top of the head, but they don't show the four smaller eyes that, to me, resemble a frowny face.

Below is another image that shows some of the eyes a little better. You can see two larger eyes on the visible side of the spider's head. There is a matching set on the opposite side of the head. You can also see two of the four smaller eyes that are tiny purplish nubs right next to and below the larger eye in the front.

This is a heavily cropped image to show the four smaller, purplish eyes. Six of the eight eyes are present in this image. The other two are obstructed by hair and the angle of the head. The color and size variation resemble small jewels.

This final image provides a decent view of the pedipalps, or feelers, the two shortened legs used to sense and guide prey into the mouth.

A few other interesting things I've learned about these wolf spiders is that they are found throughout most of the US and parts of Canada, typically in arid deserts, prairies, fields, and pastures. Males typically die in the fall after their first breeding season while females may live several years. Unlike others, female wolf spiders carry an egg sack that may produce over 100 young spiders. Those young ones tag along on mom's back for a short period after they hatch and then they head out on their own.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Ewe and Lamb: Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

Traffic slow downs are not always a bad deal. Take yesterday afternoon for example.  I was driving down the two lane road of American Fork Canyon in Utah County, Utah when traffic suddenly began to slow. Slowing transitioned to a complete stop and a realization that the hold up was courtesy of a ewe Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and her lamb. Both were lazily moving along the road at the base of a rocky hillside. While I have seen bighorn sheep in other areas of Utah, this was only my second, and best, encounter with this species in all the years I've been driving up and down American Fork Canyon. The first time I encountered them was about a year ago as a few of them were running up a tree-covered hillside. Perhaps these are signs that we'll see them more often in the future.

Thanks to a habit I have of taking my camera gear along when I head into the mountains I was able to pull off to a shoulder and capture some images of the ewe and her lamb.

The lamb eventually made its way to a resting spot about 20 yards up the hillside. The ewe remained by the road where she began to forage on available vegetation. The ewe eventually moved up the hillside to forage closer to her lamb. The lamb moved down the hillside to meet her.

The ewe was definitely aware that I and others were watching her and her lamb. I knew because she would periodically stare in our direction. However, she would soon return to foraging. I don't know their behavior all that well, but I suspected that she would not hesitate to protect her little lamb so I stayed on the far side of the road to avoid the possibility of

I would have enjoyed seeing a ram with his "big" curved horns yesterday, but those guys don't stick around after breeding. They separate from the ewes after mating and leave the ewes to tend to their individual lambs. The big boys show up to clash horns and "ram" their way up a dominance hierarchy just before and during the rut, or mating season. The gestation period for bighorns is about six months. Rocky Mountain bighorns are larger than other bighorns. The rams stand about 4 tall and can weigh from 200 to more than 400 pounds.  The ewes are a few inches shorter and weigh around 200 pounds, give or take depending upon their health. The horns of a ram can weigh up to 30 pounds, which I've read is about the equivalent of the weight of the rest of the bones in the ram's body.

Here's a phone video I captured when I first came upon the ewe and the lamb yesterday.