Monthly Archives: September 2011


Lizard behavior, observed

My computer is next to a window on the north side of our building. About five feet away is the flat roof of the building next-door. Beyond that are a few palm trees and some restaurants and banks, and beyond those is a flank of Mount San Jacinto. This gives me plenty to look at when I take my eyes off the screen. A week ago a roadrunner landed on the roof and trotted back and forth in front of my window for a bit. Earlier this spring a Costa’s hummingbird would come by, hover in front of the open window a bit, and ask if the cat could come play.

But until now, I hadn’t had any lizards walk past. One just did, using the concrete block wall’s protrusion above the roof surface as a shaded walkway. It trotted past with its tail held oddly, saw me through the window screen and glass and froze.

I went for the camera until I remembered it’s not working, then grabbed my small pair of binocs instead. Only about eight feet away, the lizard filled my view in the glasses. It was a Sceloporus magister a.k.a. desert spiny lizard, a nice fat one, and it peered at me through the layers of window and I peered back at it.

After a few seconds it started doing pushups at me: a dominance / territory display, and one in which I myself have some measure of expertise. The relevant section from that post, for those of you with the tl;dr reflex:

Driving slowly back down the canyon in Annette’s Little British Convertible as the sun passed behind the mountain, I slowed for another granite spiny lizard crossing the narrow road in front of me. It stopped to face me, did some pushups at the little car exposing his blue belly in a display of territorial dominance. A few years back in the Grand Canyon I was lying on my stomach in the shade of a cottonwood and saw the granite spiny’s cousin, the desert spiny lizard, a foot in front of my eyes on the tree trunk. He did the same lizard pushups at me. His belly was green, a shiny olive color. It occurred to me as I lay there that my shirt was the same color as his display patch, and I did a few pushups right back at him. His eyes seemed to get very wide, and he did a few extremely hurried head bobs at me before he ran away. The granite spiny today brought that to mind, and if Annette’s Blue Mini had low-rider hydraulics I might have tried for a repeat performance. But we merely stalemated there for a few seconds until he wandered off the other side of the road.

Today’s spiny lizard did those pushups at me for a moment, then lowered the base of its tail almost to the cinderblock and looked at me. It took a moment to realize what he was doing. He was taking a dump. Whether to accentuate his territorial claims, or just because he had to, or a little of each, there it was — a whitish wet spot on the wall just outside the window.

And then he* bent his tail up along his left flank so that the tip was near his nose, sat down on the wall and goddamn scooched along the wall like a doberman with an annoying post-prandial itch. He did this until he’d moved about a foot. Then he lifted his tail over his head and ran away.

* I just realized I’ve switched from neuter to male pronouns here, perhaps out of a stereotyping assumption that females don’t use balconies as toilets.


Thirty Vertebrate Common Names Potentially Useful As Insults

Insulting people by comparing them to animals is nothing new, but in the English language we don’t put much creativity into the practice. Most animal-name insults are short, one syllable, four letters or fewer: “Dog,” “pig,” “ass,” “cow.” And we’re taxonomically uncreative, too: with occasional exceptions such as “chicken” or “turkey,” most of our day-to-day insults generally just use mammal names.

And yet we live in a wild and varied world, with informal taxonomic diversity almost as great as the biological kind! Clearly this set of circumstances cannot long stand.

As a public service, then, I have compiled thirty actual common names of actual animals that are out-of-the-box ready, plug and play insults, each one linked to a citation to prove someone actually named an animal that. read the list and tell me that each name doesn’t bring to mind someone special you could have used it on.



L.A. County’s Jackboots

For those of you who followed the Phonehenge story, here’s the broader context for you. It’s yet another example of regional colonialism by the City of Los Angeles: people on the margins of society, who only want to be left alone, are being harassed off land they own by the greater forces of development. It’s like the County read Ken Layne’s Dignity and decided to adopt it as a General Plan.

My quibbles with the Offishul Libertarian Movement are reasonably well-documented, but I have to say that although I was on the lookout for axe-grinding in this video, they did a great job.

Hat tip to Wendy at the Antelope Valley Conservancy.

This is what happens when it rains in the desert

Ya got yer desert trees, most of ‘em legumes, like this ironwood here.


There’s very little usable nitrogen in the soil in the desert. Plants need nitrogen for crucial metabolic processes, chief among them making amino acids and proteins. Without nitrogen plants fail to grow, then die. The desert’s full of nitrogen, of course: most of the air in the desert, like anywhere else on the planet, consist of pure nitrogen — N2. And since there’s a lot of that air in the desert soil, then there’s lots of soil nitrogen. But N2 is chemically inert, almost as much so as the “noble” gases like helium and neon. Plants can’t use it. Plants can only take in soil nitrogen in two flavors: the ammonium ion , NH4, and the nitrate ion, NO3. Both of these are made out of N2 by “nitrogen-fixing” soil microorganisms, which aren’t as abundant in arid soils as they are in wetter places. The nitrate ion carries a negative charge, and so do most soil minerals, so any stray bit of moisture — or in the desert, even a wind that picks up and circulates the soil — will easily carry away nitrate ions. Ammonium ions are positively charged, so they’re attracted to soil particles. But on alluvial fans in the desert, the typical average soil particle is pretty large, which means the total surface area in soil particle is less than in a silt or clay soil, which means the amount of ammonium that the soil can hold isn’t all that great. Down in the flats, where deserts keep their fine-grained soils, there can be a lot more nitrogen — but there’s usually a lot more of every kind of dissolved salt down there as well, in concentrations too high to make most plants truly happy. And even what little ammonium adheres to the soil in the alluvial fan isn’t there for long: each bit of moisture spurs soil microbes to turn that ammonium into nitrite (NO2) and the nitrite into nitrate, which then leaches away.

So plants up on the alluvial fan have to manage with what nitrogen they can get. Other nutrients — phosphorus, potassium, etc. — they can usually get out of the gravel and sand as it weathers. And in fact, here’s a trade secret well known among plant nutrient salespeople, one of which I was, once. In a most settings, like, say, a backyard garden in Iowa, if you put phosphorus and potassium in the soil — the “PK” in the “NPK” rating on the bag of fertilizer — you generally never have to do it again. But nitrogen, the “N” in the NPK, is like water. It’s fungible. It flows through the local ecosystem, flows into plants and from them into animals, and then — eventually — the more chemically reactive compounds of nitrogen with other elements react with the help of “denitrifying” soil microorganisms to form, once more, that old inert N2. Like water, it’s a limiting factor in desert plant growth. You can get a little bit from decaying organic matter, the leavings of animals and plants and such as they metabolize, and, eventually, those animals and plants themselves. But organic matter is in short supply in the desert.

Leguminous trees like palo verdes, mesquites, acacias and ironwoods have an advantage here. Like other legumes, they have evolved a partnership with those nitrogen-fixing microorganisms. They provide habitat in their root nodules and some nutrients, and the microorganisms provide nitrogen, and everyone’s happy, and the trees, if they survive for a few decades — like the one in the photo above clearly has — put out bumper crops of seeds, most of which find their way into the gullets of rabbits, ravens, packrats and k-rats and ground squirrels, which consume the seeds’ fats and the proteins and excrete nitrogen, and the seasons they go 'round and 'round.

But not all those seeds get eaten up. Some of them are lucky enough to get buried under an inch or so of gravel in a flood. Not only does this hide the seeds from bored and hungry critters, but it also generally scratches the seed’s tough coat so that water has an easier chance of soaking in. Which it can do in the next storm, or the one after that.

For instance, the one that dumped a few inches of rain on Joshua Tree National Park a couple weeks ago, washing out miles of road and making the gravel very wet. Water seeps into seed, swells the seed, stirs the seed’s insensate senses. The seed moves, opens, eases a root down through the gravel for a few days, then pushes against that root and propels itself up out of the gravel, its “seed leaves” — the two cotyledons that stored the little tree’s initial boost of nutrient — slowly unfurling.


And most of these get eaten by hungry rabbits within the first few hours of their lives.

But some of them live long enough to put out their first set of true leaves, and perhaps a second set, and a third;

Two weeks after the flood

A very few of them will live long enough to grow their own seeds, and the painted ponies go up and down.


Coyote Crossing Meetup Update: Location Found!

Final Update: The actual location is described HERE. If you go to the Cottonwood Springs Road location described in this post, you will not find us there. You may well have a good time, but you won’t have a good time with US.

{UPDATE: As soon as I posted this, our friend Florian suggested a couple nearby places that he thinks would be better. We’re going to check them out tomorrow, and I will update accordingly tomorrow evening. Nothing much should change other than the precise directions. Travel times and list of things to bring will be pretty close to the same.]

I’ve scouted out a tentative location for the Coyote Crossing meetup on Oct 14-16 to replace a location I had in mind that was made inaccessible by recent flash floods.

That location is along Cottonwood Spring Road {update: NO, it isn’t. It’s here, instead., just outside the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park — which is closed at this location due to flood damage.

This is a BLM-managed area, long used as a campsite. Unless there is subsequent flooding, or unless someone in the area comes up with a better place in the next two or three days, this is where we’ll meet.

There will be:

-Newly green post-flood desert plants including creosote, jojoba, ironwood and palo verde;
-probable coyotes singing us to sleep or awake from sleep
-a freeway a mile away with noise level set to “quiet ambiance”
-plenty of private little places to lay out a sleeping bag or two, or a tent if you swing that way
-dramatic evidence of recent flash flooding
-a nice big tree that casts a little bit of shade
-campfire, especially if you bring a little firewood to pitch in
-NO running water nor toilet facilities closer than the convenience store at Chiriaco Summit,which is about four-five miles east on I-10

You Should Bring:

-Something to sit on, and something extra to sit on for others if you can
-food for yourself for as long as you plan to stay, though we’ll see if we can’t do some sort of potlucky thing, and I’ll take care of Sunday breakfast
-water, and lots of it: assume a gallon per person per day
-broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt/pants, and sunblock
-layers for after the sun goes down
-the usual other assorted camping equipment if you’re camping

You can also bring:

treats, drinks, jokes, binoculars, stories, hiking boots, cameras, and other such jollities

Directions: [Deleted. Look here instead.]

I’ll be there starting around lunchtime on Friday the 14th.

Google Map attached [Updated: no it isn’t.].

If you have not yet RSViPped, do so in comments here or send me an email.

See you there, I hope! [Updated: Not there. Here.]


Michael Gordon Show at the Kelso Depot Nov. 5 -Feb. 5

Gordon Postcard

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