Desert plants tend to look very different from plants native to other regions. They are often swollen, spiny, and have tiny leaves that are rarely bright green. A desert always has a limitation of water but the temperature may be hot or cold, high altitude and cloudy like parts of Costa Rica or low altitude and windy like the Cape Preserve in South Africa. The strange appearance of these plants is a result of their remarkable adaptations to the challenges of the desert climate. Desert plants have developed three main adaptive strategies with diverse implementations often in different species with convergent evolution to the same form: succulence, drought tolerance and drought avoidance in annual plants. Each of these is a different but effective suite of adaptations for prospering under conditions that would kill plants from other regions. These differences often extend to the cellular level with the development of special structures to store water in leaves and stems, the periodic shedding of leaves, and special adaptations to even the basic photosynthesis process. Chlorophyll (the green pigment in plants) is the only known substance in the universe that can capture volatile light energy and convert it into a stable form usable for biological processes (chemical energy) through the Calvin Cycle and the enzyme RuBisCO. Green plants use blue and red light energy to combine low-energy molecules (carbon dioxide and water) into high-energy molecules (carbohydrates or starch), which they accumulate and store as energy reserves. There are at least three variations of photosynthesis, all of which use the same basic mechanism, C3 carbon fixation used by most plants, C4 carbon fixation used in about 3% of plants and the CAM (crassulacean acid metabolism) carbon fixation pathway that evolved in plants like cactus as an adaptation to arid conditions.
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.
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.
Literally hundreds of petroglyph sites exist in Southern Nevada, and many are only known by expert archaeologists out of concern of thieves. However, because petroglyphs are carved into enormous rock formations, it is extremely difficult to pilfer them. Some petroglyphs are located in dangerous places, like cliff edges, and near boulders. While we cannot really decipher their meaning, many people most notably LaVaun Martineau, have made significant progress in deciphering their meaning. Martineau actually lived with the Paiute Indians and used his experience with cryptography obtained during WWII as a starting point for his analysis. This post is focused on a set of petroglyphs near Goodsprings Nevada.
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.
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.
It has started to get hot in Las Vegas, as it always does this time of year, and because we had a visitor, we decided on a trip to Mount Charleston. Fortunately for us, Mount Charleston is just 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas where you can find cool mountain breezes, fresh air and all-around scenic beauty. Part of the Spring Mountain Range and Toiyabe National Forest, Mount Charleston ranges from 3,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. It is Nevada’s eighth-highest mountain peak and one of the Top 10 most topographically prominent peaks in the United States. With trees like juniper, mountain mahogany, Aspen and Ponderosa pine and animals such as wild burros, songbirds, deer and desert tortoises, Mount Charleston feels like it is a million miles away from Las Vegas.