Yerba Mansa

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This is a neat plant native to the southwestern United States, though I’ve only seen it in Nevada. It is a perennial herb and its genus only has one species.

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Yerba Mansa, also known as Lizard Tail, prefers very wet soil or shallow water. I’ve only encountered in in areas of the desert where there are natural springs.

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This plant is showy in Spring when in bloom. It forms a compact group of tiny flowers that grow in an unusual, conical flower head and are surrounded by white petal-like leaves.

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Yerba Mansa is commonly pollinated by bees and other insect pollinators. Once it has finished blooming, the entire cone-like flower structure develops into a hard fruit that falls off the plant travels down waterways to spread the plant’s seeds.

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The leaves growing nearest to the ground have a rounded tip, and are often heart-shaped at the base, while the stem leaves are much smaller.

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Historically, Yerba Mansa was used to disinfect and treat open wounds and sores, as well as to treat colds, coughs, and ulcers. Today it is still used to treat a variety of medical ailments.

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I always enjoy coming across this odd, yet very cool plant on my hikes.

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Cactus Wren

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While hiking in a desert wash in Nevada I had my first-ever encounter with one of these boldly marked birds. Not only is it distinctive in pattern, but it also has a harsh, rasping voice.

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The Cactus Wren lives in a variety of low, dry habitats, but is mainly found in cactus, yucca, mesquite and arid brush deserts. This bird is very different from our other temperate-zone wrens. It represents a tropical group of large, sociable wrens, mainly living in Mexico.

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This is the largest wren in the United States. It is chunky, with a long, heavy bill, a long, rounded tail, and short, rounded wings. It is a speckled bird with bright, white eyebrows that extend from the bill, across and above its eyes. Males and females look alike.

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Male and female Cactus Wrens build large, football-shaped nests with tunnel-shaped entrances. These bulky nests are conspicuous in cholla cactus and desert trees. After the breeding season, the wrens may sleep in their nests at night.

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Cactus Wrens feed on a wide variety of insects, including beetles, ants, wasps, true bugs and grasshoppers. They forage on the ground and in low trees, probing in bark crevices and leaf litter in their search for food. The have been known to pick smashed insects from the front ends of parked cars.

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Unlike other wrens that tend to be inconspicuous and hide in vegetation, Cactus Wrens seem to have no fear. They perch atop cacti and other shrubs to announce their presence and forage out in the open.

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The Cactus Wren is the state bird of Arizona. It was super cool to experience this fine bird while on my travels through the Mojave Deseret.

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Wild Burro

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There have been several times in my visits to the Las Vegas Area when I’ve encountered these hoofed mammals. The Wild Burro was first introduced into the southwestern United States by Spaniards in the 1500s. Originally from Africa, these pack animals were prized for their hardiness in arid country. They are sure-footed, can locate food in barren terrain and can carry heavy burdens for days through hot, dry environments.

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A “Wild Burro” is simply a wild donkey. Used by miners during the Gold Rush of the 1800s, many of these tough animals were later abandoned, but found ways to survive some of the most extreme, unforgiving terrain in the American West. Wild burros have long ears, a short mane and reach a height of up to 5 feet at the shoulders. They vary in color from black to brown to gray.

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An average weight of an adult is 400 pounds for males (jacks) which are slightly larger than the females (jennies). These animals have been known to live past 30 years when well fed and cared for by man. In the wild, their average lifespan is about 10 years.

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A Wild Burro can tolerate a water loss of about 30% of its body weight. Is feeds on a wide variety of plants but prefers grasses. It survives the apparent lack of water by seeking out the natural springs and hidden waterholes.

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The Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (passed in 1971), states that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages Wild Burros with other plants and animals in the environment. The BLM currently manages Wild Burros so that they and other animals and plants can share the area with minimal competition.

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Sagebrush Lizard

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I found my first examples of this fine reptile while visiting Zion National Park in Utah, but have also gone on to find them in Nevada as well. This reptile tends to be found at mid to high altitudes in the western United States.

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True to its name, the Sagebrush Lizard is commonly observed in shrublands; it can be encountered on open, flat, grassy plains and plateaus, wooded foothills, rocky canyons and on steep forested slopes. Though they will bask on logs and rocky outcrops, I’ve seen a fair number of them on the ground.

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It usually has a total length of about 6 inches and is gray-brown to orange-brown with pointed, keeled scales and four rows of dark, irregular shaped blotches. A broad, gray mid-dorsal stripe extends from the neck onto the base of the tail.

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This sometimes colorful creature feeds on a variety of insects including ants, beetles, termites, flies, caterpillars, true bugs and grasshoppers. It also eats a variety of spiders and scorpions.

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Adult males have blue patches on each side of the belly and their throat is mottled or streaked with blue. Adult females have only a pale blue coloration on their bellies, but may develop red or orange colors when gravid (carrying eggs).

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During the breeding season males do “push-ups” on elevated perches to display their bright blue side patches to warn off other males.

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This is a fun reptile to see while hiking. It’s many different “looks” in addition to its interesting behaviors that make for enjoyable encounters.

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Tarantula Hawk

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While visiting Nevada, Arizona and California I have come across this awesome insect on occasion. This is the largest of the spider wasps, which use their sting to paralyze their prey before dragging it to a brood nest to serve as living food.

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These two-inch insects are not only distinctive because of their size, but they are also easily recognizable by their blue-black bodies and bright, rust-colored wings. Their vivid coloration is an advertisement to potential predators of the wasps’ ability to deliver a powerful sting.

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For humans and other vertebrates, the Tarantula Hawk has one of the most painful stings on the planet. American entomologist Justin Schmidt created the sting pain index and described the Tarantula Hawk’s sting as “instantaneous, electrifying and totally debilitating.”

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Female Tarantula Hawks battle tarantulas (which are bigger than themselves), sting them and then drag the paralyzed spider to a specially prepared burrow, where a single egg is laid on the spider’s abdomen and the burrow entrance is covered. When the Tarantula Hawk larva hatches, it feeds voraciously on the tarantula, avoiding vital organs for as long as possible to keep the spider alive.

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Adult Tarantula Hawks derive their energy and nutrient requirements from a diet consisting mainly of the sugar-rich nectar produced by flowering plants. The consumption of fermented fruit sometimes intoxicates them to the point that flying becomes difficult.

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Despite their large size and fearsome lifestyle, Tarantula Hawks are relatively docile and rarely sting without provocation.

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Western Ground Snake

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This is a neat little reptile that is highly variable in color and pattern. Individuals can be brown, red, or orange, with black banding, orange or brown striping, or be solid-colored.

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It only grows to about a foot in length. Being so small and prone to dehydration, in the desert it tends to be found near sources of water. In the rest of the southwestern United States, its preferred habitat is dry, rocky areas with loose soil.

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These snakes are seldom seen in the open; they remain hidden under flat rocks during the day. They may become active on the ground surface at night. In hot weather, they burrow underground to find cooler temperatures and higher humidity.

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The Western Ground Snake eats a variety of insects, spiders, scorpions, centipedes and lizards.

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It was awesome to come across this gentle, secretive species in the wild.

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Amargosa Toad

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While visiting Las Vegas I decided to take a 3-1/2 hour drive to search for a very cool amphibian that lives in a remote area of the Mojave Desert.

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The Amargosa toad only resides in Oasis Valley, Nevada; specifically, it occurs along a 10-mile stretch of the Amargosa River and upland springs.

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This 3-1/2 to 5 inch creature has a warty back with a light, mid-dorsal stripe and black speckling on a background ranging widely in color from buff to olive.

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Unlike most frogs and toads, Amargosa Toads do not call and never vocalize unless threatened (they are able to produce alarm calls when predators grab them).

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Like most amphibians, they live in damp areas and flooded marshes are one of their favorite habitats. They are nocturnal hunters, feeding on spiders, insects, snails and even scorpions.

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In 2006, the Nevada Division of Wildlife estimated that the total population included about 2,000 individuals. It was a memorable experience seeing this creature in the wild and worth the long drive.

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White-Throated Sparrow

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These days I often see these birds while hiking the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

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White-Throated Sparrows have black-and-white stripes on the crown, a large patch of white on the throat and a yellow spot above each eye.

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In Ohio it is considered a common migrant, and in some years, a fairly common Winter visitor. Easily attracted to bird feeders, this species lives in woods and gardens with dense underbrush.

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These birds also freely sing as they migrate through Ohio. The song is a paraphrased “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

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Shaggy Mane

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I saw this fungi while visiting Hinckley Reservation, also occasionally known as the Lawyers Wig, this is a distinctive and simple to recognize mushroom. It’s size, texture and shape make it easy to spot even from considerable distance. They are often seen growing on lawns, along gravel roads and waste areas in Summer and Fall. They may grow singly or scattered, but are often in large, tightly packed groups.

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Shaggy Mane has an elongated, bullet-shaped, shaggy cap, with brownish upturned scales and a straight fairly smooth stem. The white caps are covered with frilled scales, creating the origin of the common name of this fungus.

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This mushroom is known for its unique robust flavor. Shaggy Manes can also be used for dyeing wool, some types of fabric, or paper and will yield a bayberry color when cooked in an iron pot.

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Mushrooms and other fungi are one of the most important groups of organisms on the planet. This is easy to overlook, given that most of the organism is largely hidden. The fruiting body (mushroom) is all you see of a vast network of thread-like structures hidden from view deep the soil, wood or other food sources.

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Fungi, together with bacteria, are responsible for most of the recycling that returns dead material to the soil in a form in which it can be reused. Unlike animals, that digest food inside their bodies, fungi digest food outside of their “bodies” and then absorb the nutrients into their cells.

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Ornate Harvestmen

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Harvestmen, commonly known as “Daddy Longlegs,” superficially resemble, and are often misidentified for spiders, though they are not closely related. Spiders can be identified by their two body segments, while harvestmen have just one.

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While harvestmen are common around my house, especially in late Summer and early Autumn, this particular type I’ve only seen while out-of-state, at Carter Caves, Kentucky and while visiting Snake Road in southern Illinois.

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Ornate Harvestmen are omnivorous, mostly eating small insects and a wide variety of plant material and fungi; they also are scavengers and feed on dead organisms.

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As their name implies, these are more “fancy” than the species of harvestman that I typically find. The Ornate Harvestmen’s intricate details and pattern make it an intriguing find while out and about looking for reptiles.

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Harvestmen are among the most ancient of arachnids, fossils indicate they were living on land over 400 million years ago.

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