Queen

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While hiking in the Mojave Desert, I sometimes come across this fine creature in the vicinity of cattle watering troughs or natural springs where there is green plant life in the surrounding area.

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This insect is part of the subfamily Danainae, known as the Milkweed Butterfly Group. It is a close relative to the Monarch Butterfly, though it tends to be more chestnut in color, rather than orange. It is also more solidly colored and only faintly veined.

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Like those of Monarchs, the caterpillars of Queens feed on several different species of poisonous milkweed. The caterpillars acquire the milkweed toxins, and as a result both they and the adult butterflies are rather poisonous.

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Birds will avoid these orange (or rust), black and white butterflies and any other butterflies with similar markings like the deceptive, non-poisonous Viceroy.

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Queens have a wingspan of almost four inches and can be found in open, sunny areas including fields, deserts, roadsides, pastures, dunes, washes and waterways in the southern United States.

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Two-striped Garter Snake

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While visiting southern California, I had a specific garter snake that I was hoping to find that I’d never seen “in person” before. This rocky creek looked to be an ideal habitat to explore while searching for it.

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An adult Two-striped Garter Snake measures two to three feet long and is an olive, brown or dark gray color. Most garter snakes have a stripe running down their backs, but Two-striped Garter Snakes lack this dorsal marking.

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This species is more aquatic than most garter snakes; it inhabits streams and ponds in chaparral, oak woodland and forest habitats. Its ideal environment is in aquatic areas that are bordered by vegetation with open areas for basking.

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This reptile’s diet consists of fish, fish eggs, tadpoles, small frogs and toads, leeches and earthworms. Two-striped Garter Snakes forage for food in and under water.

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Loss of wetland habitats have contributed to a reduction in the range of this snake by about 40%. It is designated a California Species of Special Concern and protected by the state.

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It was a thrill to explore the Golden State find one of these fine serpents.

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Canyon Tree Frog

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While visiting Zion National Park in Utah I was able to see and hear this interesting amphibian.

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It is relatively small (at just over two inches), plump and warty, with a toad-like appearance. A distinctive feature is its suction-like adhesive toe pads for climbing.

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They can vary in color and pattern considerably, but Canyon Tree Frogs usually match the soil or rock color of their native habitat to serve as camouflage.

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As its name implies, it is an amphibian of canyons and arroyos, particularly rocky, intermittent or permanent stream courses.

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Despite being called “tree frogs,” they prefer to perch on boulders and rock faces overlooking pools of water. During warm weather they spend the day hiding in rock crevices.

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The Canyon Tree Frog’s call is a loud, rattling series of short trills that sound like they’re coming from inside a tin can. The call is surprisingly loud given the small size of this creature.

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This was a neat find and the first time the I got to see Canyon Tree Frogs “in person.”

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Arizona Blond Tarantula

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After making quite a few trips to the Mojave Desert, I finally came across my first wild tarantulas. This species has a limited distribution in the deserts of the southwestern United States and adjacent parts of Mexico, but can be common within its range.

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Tarantulas rarely venture far from their burrows unless it is mating season. In Winter they plug their burrows with soil, rocks and silk to survive in a relatively inactive state. During this time they live off stored fat reserves.

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Soft blond hair covers female Arizona Blond Tarantulas, while males are typically black. Female tarantulas have larger, stockier bodies than males. Living as long as 25 years, female tarantulas live twice as long as males. Males mate only once and die shortly afterwards.

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Tarantulas have an interesting defensive capability in addition to their bite. Some of the hairs on the top of the abdomen are tipped with backward pointing barbs. If a tarantula is threatened, it uses its legs to flick these hairs at its attacker. Once these hairs are embedded, they are irritating and very difficult to remove.

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Arizona Blond Tarantulas burrow 8 to 12 inches into the desert ground, line the burrow with silk webbing, and call it home. The silk webbing helps to prevent their burrow from caving in.

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These nocturnal hunters have a diet consisting mostly of grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, other small spiders and even small lizards, snakes and frogs. They rely on ambush and pursuit to catch their prey, which they subdue with a bite from their fangs.

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This is an awesome arachnid and it was thrilling to find my first examples of it in the wild.

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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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