Dragonflies and their relatives are an ancient group. Meganisoptera is an extinct order of very large to gigantic insects, occasionally called Griffinflies. The largest known Griffinfly and/or insect of all time was a predator resembling a dragonfly but was only distantly related to them. Its name is Meganeuropsis, and it ruled the skies before pterosaurs, birds and bats had even evolved. The oldest fossils are of the Protodonata from the 325 Mya Upper Carboniferous of Europe, a group that included the largest insect that ever lived, Meganeuropsis permiana from the Early Permian (300–250 Mya). Meganeuropsis permiana was described in 1939 from Elmo, Kansas. It was one of the largest known insects that ever lived, with a reconstructed wing length of 330 millimetres (13 in), an estimated wingspan of up to 28 inches (710 mm), and a body length from head to tail of almost 430 millimetres (17 in). Nevada designated the Vivid Dancer Damselfly (Argia vivida) as the official state insect in 2009. Sadly, I have no photos of the state insect but Nevada has many eco-zones and the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve has quite a number of equally beautiful species.
When I first moved to Las Vegas there were virtually no mosquitoes and no flies. However as the population has increased and the local climate has changed with more landscaping and water we have seen a corresponding increase in bugs. That is not to say that there were no insects in the desert, as with flowers and plants you just have to look more carefully. There are an amazing variety of specialized insects living in the desert surrounding Las Vegas under conditions that would be considered hostile for any other insects. Again just like flowers and plants, the insects can come and go quickly over specific times like spring or after precipitation and are often found in specific areas suited to their needs. The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve is a great place to see lots of unusual insects due to the presence of water and hospitable plants. Bees, wasps, dragonflies and butterflies are diverse and are part of the special ecology of the preserve, both prey and predator for birds and other inhabitants. Fortunately, there are very few mosquitoes, probably due to the dragonflies and the dry heat. Due to carefully selected and strategic native plants, there are a variety of native flowers all summer long which support a diverse and vibrant ecosystem. In this post I thought I would focus on some really interesting bees and wasps which I saw at the preserve.
Butterflies have been held in reverence and high esteem for millennia, enshrined by the ancient Greeks in the mythical love affair between Cupid/Eros and Psyche the butterfly goddess. According to Greek mythology, Psyche was a beautiful maiden who fell in love with Eros/Cupid. Cupid’s mother, Aphrodite, was jealous of Psyche’s beauty and tried to keep the lovers apart. Eventually, however, Aphrodite realized that Cupid and Psyche were destined to be together and so Zeus made Psyche immortal. Psyche is also the Greek word for “soul” and “butterfly.” Although the original Greek story has been lost to history, the mythology of Cupid and Psyche was preserved in the book Metamorphoses written in the 2nd century CE by Platonicus. The Greek story of Eros and Psyche is known from at least the 4th century BCE and was a popular subject in Greek and Roman art. The word for butterfly in formal Greek is psyche, thought to be the soul of the dead. Ancient Greeks also named the butterfly scolex (“worm”), while the chrysalis – which is the next stage of metamorphosis from a caterpillar – was called nekydallon, meaning “the shell of the dead”. The metamorphosis of the butterfly inspired many to use butterflies as a symbol of the soul’s exit from the body. Thus, the myth of Psyche concomitantly signifies soul and butterfly. It has come to mean the story of the soul coupled with divine Eros, but which must nevertheless endure tribulations before achieving immortality. Psyche, a mortal woman, was released from death by Zeus, the father of the gods, who took pity on her and granted her immortality. Psyche’s mythological imagery in ancient art is represented with butterfly wings, amply depicted in pottery as well. Freed from death, the body of the soul could fly freely, soaring, departing from the shackles of the chrysalis. I thought this lovely Greek story would be the perfect introduction to a review of beautiful butterflies.
Since the Covid virus pandemic, I have been sheltering at home like everyone else. Fortunately the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve has re-opened and I go almost every day. I had been going since December, recording the spring changes of birds and plants but the Coronovirus put all of that on hold for a while. It has been a repetitive comfort to me to have a beautiful place to walk each morning with an ever changing cast of beautiful birds. One constant and always welcome bird companion has been the tiny Verdin who are resident at the bird preserve. The Verdin is a very small bird. At 4.5 in (11 cm) in length, it rivals the American bushtit as one of the smallest passerines in North America and it is smaller than many hummingbirds. At the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, Verdin the most common bird, rarely seen but almost always heard. It is most easily detected by its surprisingly loud calls, which sound like “cheep” followed by a pause the another “cheep”. These tiny birds are difficult to photograph, rather like shooting skeet or pinball. The tiny birds are quick and athletic, jumping from branch to branch sideways, up and down. You need a hair-trigger on the shutter, shoot first and check your focus and framing later, you will not get a second chance. Since I have collected quite a number of photographs of my avian friends the Verdin, I decided to make a post of it.
Like many people interested in nature, I have a fairly large set of bird feeders in my back yard. Last year was quite eventful for the feeders, I had several clutches of Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii) born in the bushes scattered around the yard. Gambel’s Quail are skittish birds, living mostly on the ground, they run for cover at even the hint of a surprise. While they have nested in my yard off and on for several years, last year was the first time they visited the feeders. There is plenty of water, feed and shelter in my backyard and the quail apparently liked what they saw. We had at least 3 clutches and possibly as many as 5–6 with the result of many groups of adult, adolescent and baby quail pretty much all summer. Naturally I took photos, as if I was the proud grandfather. Many of the photos were taken in less than ideal light but gradually they grew more trusting and I managed a few flash captures. I thought the photos would make for a nice post so I organized the best ones to present here.
I like to celebrate the return of spring each year by writing about the beautiful flowers I find around me in Las Vegas. It might be surprising to some to know that Las Vegas and the surrounding desert are full of life, flowers and beauty, especially in spring. The wet El Niño winter this year has brought above average amounts of rain to California and Southern Nevada mostly in February. This has resulted in super blooms of poppies in California, a rare wildflower super-bloom in Joshua Tree National Forest and an unusual simultaneous blooming of Joshua trees and Mohave Yucca around Las Vegas. Joshua trees do not bloom every year. Like most desert plants, their blooming depends on rainfall at the proper time. They also need a winter freeze before they bloom and it was cold last winter with a little snow. The blooming cycle of the Joshua Tree is totally dependant on climatic conditions. Depending on the timing and intensity of winter rains, blossoming can occur any time from March to May, and can vary from very sparse to a rare abundance of blossoms in relative wet years as we see this year.
Most people who do not live in a desert environment consider cactus to be an unattractive species. Nothing could be farther from the truth, cactus are a beautiful species, similar to euphorbia in Africa. Euphorbia can be found all over the world. The forms range from annual plants laying on the ground, to well developed tall trees. In deserts in Madagascar and southern Africa, convergent evolution has led to cactus-like forms where the plants occupy the same ecological niche as cacti do in deserts of North America and South America. The genus is primarily found in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and the Americas, but also in temperate zones worldwide. The 1,500 to 1,800 species of cacti mostly fall into one of two groups of “core cacti”: opuntias (subfamily Opuntioideae) and “cactoids” (subfamily Cactoideae). Most members of these two groups are easily recognizable as cacti. They have fleshy succulent stems that are major organs of photosynthesis. They have absent, small, or transient leaves. They have flowers with ovaries that lie below the sepals and petals, often deeply sunken into a fleshy receptacle (the part of the stem from which the flower parts grow). All cacti have areoles highly specialized short shoots with extremely short internodes that produce spines, normal shoots, and flowers. In Las Vegas we have one of the best cactus gardens in the world at the Ethel M Botanic Garden.
Each year I write on the spring flowers in my home city, Las Vegas. This year I have decided to focus on plants used in public landscapes. Every city and town has a certain ambiance or sense of place. Often the ambiance is due to the people, sometimes the food, music or architecture but frequently it is the mix of plants and landscapes in the particular location. Although the plantings may reflect the surrounding area, sometimes plants are imported from elsewhere and over time become considered as a a native part of the environment. Even if two places are nearby, the landscapes can be completely different, based on water availability, affluence and even history. Las Vegas is not that far from Los Angeles yet the landscapes could not be more different. Not long ago I wrote about the succulents that are recently wildly popular in Los Angeles in part because of the mild climate. Las Vegas suffers from the same water shortages but it's landscapes are distinctly different, reflecting the deserts in the surrounding areas. This is not a complete list, but it will give you a sense of landscaping in Las Vegas and you will get to see some beautiful flowers.
The current Cromwell Casino has a long and interesting Las Vegas history. Bugsy Siegel opened The Flamingo Hotel & Casino at a total cost of $6 million on December 26, 1946 right next door. Billed as “The West's Greatest Resort Hotel,” the 105-room property and first luxury hotel on the Strip. He refused to buy the thin slice of land separating the Flamingo from the famous intersection of Flamingo and the strip. The Flamingo became the Flamingo Hilton in 1971 and the Flamingo Las Vegas in 1999. The thin slice of land was the site of Empey's Desert Villa from 1952. Over time, this property, along with others owned by Gaughan would become “The Barbary Coast”. In July 2005, the Barbary Coast was bought by Boyd Gaming and sold to Harrah's Entertainment in 2007, rebranded as Bill's Gamblin Hall and Saloon. Plans announced in late 2013 indicated that Giada De Laurentiis would open her first restaurant in the new hotel and that Caesars would run the hotel. The 260-seat restaurant, Giada, from De Laurentiis, her first such venture has taken over the second-floor space that once housed a hotel parking garage. Giada is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner and offer views of the Strip, the Bellagio fountains, Caesars Palace and Bally’s Grand Bazaar Shops. Along with the venerable after hours club Drai's, Giada forms the the nucleus of offerings at the Cromwell. It doesn't hurt that the second floor Giada has killer views of the Bellagio fountains with floor to ceiling windows.
Since Lisa’s sister was visiting, we decided on another trip, this time to Red Rock Canyon, which is next to the Mount Charleston, Humboldt Toyabe National Forest. Red Rock Canyon was designated as Nevada’s first National Conservation Area. Red Rock Canyon is located 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip on Charleston Boulevard/State Route 159. The area is 195,819 acres and is visited by more than one million people each year. In marked contrast to a town geared to entertainment and gaming, Red Rock offers enticements of a different nature including a 13-mile scenic drive, more than 30 miles of hiking trails, rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, road biking, picnic areas, nature observing and visitor center with exhibit rooms and a book store. The BLM is the largest administrator of public lands in the West. It adheres to the policy of multiple use, by providing recreational opportunities, protection for cultural sites, and the management of natural resources, including wildlife.