2015 February – February Desert Almanac

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gail-side-blotch-lizard

Metamorphosis is already under way for insect species that waited out the short winter as eggs and now hatch into nymph forms. A nymph’s job is to eat and grow. The greenbird grasshopper (Schistocerca shoshone) will become one of the largest and strongest flying grasshoppers in the Southwest. In February she is yet a wingless nymph, munching her way from one plant to another.

February is when young raptors face their first breeding season. They must take on the tricky missions of establishing a territory and wooing a mate. The world is fraught with danger for a juvenile bird of prey, and there is no option of staying home to lie around on the sofa.

Great horned owls call at dawn and dusk to catch the attention of potential mates and to establish a territory. Early breeding rewards these owls with the first choice at nests left from last year, perhaps a luxurious and roomy stick nest built by red-tailed hawks.

Mature red-tailed hawks circle and scream to proclaim territories and re-awaken romantic notions with longtime mates. Red-tails mate for life, but in the spring a female may entertain the advances of an unattached male. Courtship involves elaborate aerial acrobatics, complete with daring dives and barrel rolls.

Gila woodpeckers are evident around suburbs and desert preserves, bounding through the air on important woodpecker duties, or rapping incessantly on reverberating surfaces to advertise their domain. In early spring the air also rings with the call of male Gambel’s quails serenading the female population, hoping to attract the perfect mate with whom to start a family.

Already Costa’s hummingbirds are sitting on nests and feeding their young. Winter-blooming nectar plants such as chuparosa provide for these families. A few years ago a female Costa’s built a nest in our back yard, a tiny thimble-sized abode for her young. It was just a bit too high for me to peek into, so I made a nest peeker, similar to what dentists use, from a compact mirror and a short stick. Sadly, a violent storm brought that nesting effort to an early demise. Fickle weather is a springtime danger even here in the desert.

Cottontail rabbits mate early and often and hide their litters under layers of soft grasses through the day while mom browses the spring plants. She visits her young only at early morning and evening to feed, thus avoiding the attention of hungry raptors and coyotes.

On warm February afternoons heat-loving reptiles such as whiptail and side blotch lizards venture short distances from their winter burrows to sun in sheltered, south-facing locations. It’s a tentative start to the full-on frenzy of spring, but these early nesters and early hatchers get a jump on the rest of the native populations, and fill an important niche in the ecology of the desert.

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