The Unexpected

So, when I last posted on the morning of the 23rd in honor of the autumnal equinox, I wrote: I find myself curious and eager to see what this new season has in store.

I didn’t have to wait very long to find out. About an hour later, I encountered this gorgeous immature rattlesnake just hanging out at the base of our porch steps.

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake, immature


My last rattler sighting had been back on the 12th of August (which feels like ages ago), so I felt rather satisfied by the sighting and pleased with the pics that I managed to get. It seemed like a truly auspicious beginning to the unfolding new season!

Little could I have possibly imagined that the very same morning would also bring THIS….


Mountain Lion


Yup. That is indeed what you think it is.

I tell you, it’s enough to leave a gal speechless… Well, almost anyway. *GRIN* This is a teaser post as there are other better photos and an entire story that still needs telling. I’ve been holding my tongue on sharing this news for a couple days now though and I simply couldn’t wait any longer.

Life is good. It may not always be easy. You may not always get things exactly how you want them or when you want them. But there are lions and snakes and birds and trees and spiders and moons and toads and rainbows and squirrels and clouds and all the other totally amazing things that make me wonder what tomorrow will bring and keep me hangin’ in there to find out!


Harsi / September 25, 2011 / mammals, reptiles / 7 Comments

The “See Ya’ Later” Lizard


Southern Alligator Lizard, reddish


This may be the most brightly colored Southern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata webbii) I have ever seen!! They are always beautifully patterned, but usually draped in more subtle shades of brown, gray or green. (Sightings like this are always so much fun, but they are even more fun when my neighbor and her 3 yr. old son are along for the walk. Many thanks, J, for spotting this one for me on our walk together last week!)

The alligator lizards around here seem to really enjoy hanging out at various points along the main road as it parallels the creek. describes them as “generally secretive, tending to hide in brush or under rocks, although they are often seen foraging out in the open or on roads in the morning and evening. They are common inhabitants of suburban yards and garages.” This description matches up quite well with my own observations over the years. I’ve often found them creeping about on our porch in the early morning hours and twice I’ve had to figure out how to trap-and-release young ones that somehow found a way inside the house itself. (I can tell you from firsthand experience that the snake-like look of their head and eye can really throw you for a loop if you can’t see the rest of their body… Just imagine one popping its head out from behind a bookcase as you are strolling through your living room. *grin*)


Southern Alligator Lizard, rescue


Southern Alligator Lizard, rescue


They can move extremely fast when they want to, but my experience has been that they prefer to remain very still up until the last possible second that danger (or possibly prey?) approaches. When the object finally gets too close, they either strike or run away. Sadly, it is my belief that this strategy — which may work quite well in most situations — might be responsible for the potentially large number of accidental deaths along the road to our home. They seem to rest in the shadier spots and can be extremely difficult to pick-out from the surrounding ground, twigs and leaves. I think that this, combined with their seeming preference to remain motionless until something approaches very closely, may prove to be a fatal combination when sharing their habitat with automobiles. I can only hope that their numbers in this area are healthy enough to support these tragic losses. (For what it’s worth, I always move the dead bodies off to the side of the road and I am pleased to report that there are enough scavengers here that the corpses rarely linger for more than 24 to 48 hours before something makes a meal of them.)


Southern Alligator Lizard, roadkill

I’ve heard from a lot of people that they think these guys are “creepy”. I’ve also heard some comments that they bite and are aggressive. I can only say that I have never personally experienced any of these things. And, aside from being startled on occasion — they do look and move a lot like a snake! — I greatly enjoy having these lizards around and only wish that I had more opportunities to photograph them.


Southern Alligator Lizard, eye close-up


Harsi / August 8, 2011 / conservation, reptiles / 2 Comments

My July Sky II

More images and thoughts from my walk at sundown yesterday…


sky, tree & moon triptych


Everywhere I looked the sky was doing something different.

Washes of color and fast-moving clouds.

Swallows dancing through it all.


Western Fence Lizard, sunset profile


Tearing myself away from the views above, I found plenty of interest down on the ground.

Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis longipes) — such beautiful creatures.

After approaching slowly and gradually, I was duly rewarded with an amazing series of shots.

I made sure to say “thank you” when we parted ways.


Phainopepla & branches


The Phainopeplas (Phainopepla nitens) are so numerous this year.

Everywhere in the bare branches are crested pairs — I imagine their nests are hidden in the foliage below.

Quail sputtered loudly from the stands of dry thistle and brush as I passed.

The shrill begging cries of a newly fledged hawk demanded my attention over and over again.

I think (as I have thousands of times before) that birds are pure magic.


plants & sunset


Even after the sun had set from view, the sky remained drenched in lovely shades.

I took the opportunity to photograph some stunning plant silhouettes.

From left to right: Black Sage (Salvia mellifera), California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) and White Sage (Salvia apiana).


rattlesnake, soft focus


It was almost 8:30 PM when I neared home…

Just enough light to still make out the potential dangers while wandering around in the hills.

Not quite enough light to get the camera to achieve focus though.

  Not to worry… I like the soft, brush-stroked look of this rattlesnake rendering.

Harsi / July 4, 2011 / birds, hillsides, plants, reptiles, skies / 2 Comments

Whiptail Wishes Granted!

As you may recall, last week I was wondering where all of the Coastal Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris stejnegeri) were and hoping that my blog post might serve as a lizard “rain dance” of sorts and bring some my way. Well, I still haven’t seen any here in the canyon, but I did get my wish…


Coastal Whiptail, on the move


I had the pleasure of accompanying some of my out-of-town relatives on an afternoon walk at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden today. This lovely botanical garden is entirely focused on the native plants of California and is a wonderful destination for any nature lover. We actually saw several (at least 3 or 4) whiptail, which is far more than I can ever recall seeing at the garden before. Mostly we saw them scurrying off the side of the main path, busily foraging in the leaf litter. But, the spectacular lizard pictured here was coming right down the path towards us. Everyone stopped and stood very still — possibly due to my bossy instructions for everyone to stay put and please let me try and get a few photos before it hurried off. Apparently I needn’t have worried, because as if on cue, the lizard stopped directly in front of us and then pressed its belly down on the warm earth and calmly rested for a minute or so. More than enough time for us all to get a good look and for me to get a few nice images!


Coastal Whiptail, posing


As always, you can click on the above pictures to see a larger image, but I thought it was worth showcasing a few details that I thought were super cool…


Coastal Whiptail, front clawsWould you look at the length of the claws on the front feet!!!
Did I mention that these guys are very good diggers?

Coastal Whiptail, back clawsOf course, that’s nothing compared to the length of the back claws!!!


Coastal Whiptail, pregnant?Perhaps this lizard just ate a large meal, but looking at the photos I took, I couldn’t help but wonder if this might be a pregnant female? The abdomen seems awfully plump and the bulges on the sides look a little lumpy and… hmmmm… egg-like? According to, eggs are typically laid between the months of April and August, so it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

Harsi / June 13, 2011 / reptiles / 2 Comments

Relaxin’ Weekend?

Red-eared Slider

The Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegan) is native to many parts of the southern United States, but here in California it is an introduced species.


Today I met up with my friend Chris to explore El Dorado Regional Park in Long Beach. We saw so many fantastic birds, arthropods and other critters! I had a really great time… though after a couple hours of walking around, I had to concede that I was a tad jealous of how completely r-e-l-a-x-e-d some of the turtles looked. *GRIN*

Hoping that everyone else found something wonderful to do today that left you tired and happy!


turtle lounge deckTurtle lounge deck extraordinaire!

turtle stackingIt’s surprising to me how amicable some turtles were about being climbed on and used as a sunning spot by other smaller turtles.
*Click on the image to see a close-up of their seemingly happy and blissful expressions.*
I’m still searching for a positive ID on the smaller turtle in this shot… anyone reading this have an idea of which species it is?

Harsi / June 5, 2011 / reptiles / 8 Comments

Wishing for Whiptail

Coastal Whiptail, selective color


The Coastal Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris stejnegeri) is a real favorite of mine and a lizard species that I never really got to see regularly until we moved to the canyon. They prefer hot and arid habitat with relatively sparse vegetation, which describes much of the habitat around here. These guys are proficient diggers when foraging for invertebrate prey and they are super speedy when they want to be. (There’s a cool video about half-way down this page on California if you want to get some idea of how fast they are.) Definitely not an easy lizard to catch, but I have found that with a slow and steady approach it is possible to observe them closely. Usually I start seeing them towards the end of May and then continuing through September or October. (Note: This may not be indicative of their actual seasonal activity, it’s just what I have noticed from my daily sightings over the last several years.)

I love this photo of a pair I was hanging out with one July afternoon a few years ago. They took a break from their courtship activities to rest awhile in the shade. Here you can see how wonderfully camouflaged they are:


Coastal Whiptail pair


The juvenile lizards are much more colorful than the adults. How awesome is that blue tail?!


Coastal Whiptail, juvenile


So, aside from wanting to share this great reptile with you all, I guess I’m kind of hoping this post will serve as a conjuring trick of sorts. You see, I haven’t actually seen one since last year and I haven’t had the chance to photograph one since May of 2009. I’m fairly certain this lizard’s population is relatively stable in this area, so I’m not worried that they’re not out there… it’s just that I’d love the opportunity to spend some more time in the field with them. Everyone keep your fingers crossed for me and maybe I’ll have a few more recent pics to share soon!

Harsi / June 3, 2011 / artwork, reptiles / 2 Comments

Sometimes The Sky Calls…

Another night of unsatisfying sleep, my Inbox is full of e-mail awaiting responses, my household chores are steadily backing up. In light of all of this, I had decided that I would stay inside today and just post some remaining photos from yesterday’s walk. But… this morning I looked outside and it was cloudy. I cracked the front door and the weather was cool and breezy. Birds were singing… squirrels were zipping around… and, well, you know how it goes. I got dressed and put my shoes on. [insert sheepish grin] I figured I should at least grab a cup of juice before leaving and while gulping it down, I peered out the kitchen window. As if on cue, my favorite spotted-little-one showed up with its mom and gave me a glimpse or two as it snuck through the sage and olive trees.


mule deer fawn

There was a fair bit of blue sky showing, but the clouds that covered the rest of the sky more than made up for it. Wispy and whimsical. Puffs and arcs. Stretching, shifting and moving. Aaaah… action in the sky… just what I crave!


clouds sky trees

clouds sky hillside

cloud abstract


As if issuing some sort of homage to the little spotted fawn from earlier, the sky shifted yet again and produced this most wonderful pattern:


cloud abstract spots**Be sure to click on the image for a beautiful panoramic.**

A Cooper’s Hawk (quite likely the same one from yesterday!) soared effortlessly above me. Sharing the sky with the hawk were a few swallows swooping and diving at unseen insects. I heard the raucous croaking of the boisterous raven family long before I spotted them high over the hills. The juveniles are as big as the adults now and the family (6 birds total, I think) loudly travels together in search of food and perhaps a bit of mayhem.


Cooper's Hawk & Common Ravens


There were small arthropod joys to be had as well. Several bumble bees were working a patch of California Poppies. If yesterday’s photos were a matter of good luck and perfect timing, today’s images proved to be more a matter of supreme patience and diligence. For some reason, my camera repeatedly refused to achieve focus when I wanted it to, and countless opportunities for beautiful shots of the bees ended up as little more than blurry blobs of orange, yellow and black. But, it was a beautiful day to be out and I smiled despite my frustration, and stuck with it until I managed to come away with at least a few nifty shots.

bumble bees on poppiesI was kind of amazed at how long bumble bees’ back legs are when they let them dangle.


I knew I had been gone too long, and reluctantly I turned and headed for home. As I rounded the corner of the small work shed near our cabin, I slowed down to carefully watch my step and scan the ground… Why? Well, because there’s always the chance I’ll see this poking out of the abandoned ground squirrel burrow:


rattlesnake under shedIf you’ve got a heebie-jeebie-thing about rattlers, I wouldn’t click on this one for the bonus shot… (*grin*)

Hope everyone has had a truly wonderful day!

Harsi / June 1, 2011 / arthropods, birds, flowers, mammals, reptiles, skies / 2 Comments

There’s No Place Like Home

Yesterday, I was heading back to bed to relax and read for awhile with a hot cup of tea… but, in doing so I cast a passing glance out the east-facing window of my bedroom and instantly knew that I wouldn’t be getting to that herbal tea anytime soon.

Let me back up for a minute and say a few things… Ever since we moved here to the canyon, I haven’t been terribly inclined to visit other places. Previously, we had lived in a truly soul-sucking environment — the suburban apartment complex. Perhaps that is a happy housing experience for some, but not for us. Every weekend that we could, we made a mad dash for someplace more wild and lovely, and in doing so we were often heading down to the coast or up into the mountains. But, once we moved to this surreal haven, where “wildlife” and “homelife” intersect seamlessly every day, a lot of the motivation for getting in a vehicle and sitting on the freeway to get somewhere else kind of vanished. Now, some people might think that things would get boring wandering around the same piece of land day in and day out… but it never does for me. I love being able to get to know this area so intimately. Having a feel for when certain bird species will return, where certain wildflowers will poke up through the ground in Spring, understanding the cyclical quality of how the light changes as it filters through the canyon each day in winter vs. summer… these are things that you can only grasp after years of living in a place and wandering the same trails day after day. While I certainly still feel the thrill of excitement that comes from traveling and investigating new places, I believe there are always new discoveries to be made wherever you are if you are willing to look hard and long enough. It is only rarely that I go outside in the canyon and don’t come away with some brand new bit of information that I never knew before. For instance… Woodpeckers and thrushes seem to swallow the fruit from the olive trees whole — pit and all! — while finches and sparrows peck at them and swallow little pieces. Or… Cottontail scat is very different looking in Spring vs. Fall — small, dark and moist vs. larger, light-colored and dry. Anyway… Why am I going on at length about all of this? Well, because if I wasn’t so attuned to my surroundings and I didn’t know the view out my window like the back of my hand, I’m certain the following sighting never would have occurred.

So, where was I? Oh, yes… Cup of tea in hand, I stopped dead in my tracks, scrutinizing a spot of bare ground under a patch of olive trees about 50 feet away. The ground rippled ever so slightly. A sinuous shimmer of banded earth. I instantly turned on my heel, grabbed my camera and hurried to put on a pair of shoes. I walked quickly (but carefully) to the spot behind the cabin and scanned the area until I saw it — a large rattlesnake slowly making its way across the mostly brown earth. My first thought was that this was a really good-sized snake. [According to, the average adult length for the subspecies of rattlesnake that occurs in this area — the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri) — is “30 – 44 inches long, sometimes up to 54 inches”. After doing a little post-sighting calculation, using the photographs that I took as a guide, I went back out and measured some of the adjacent rocks. Not an exact science, to be sure, but using that data I arrived at an approximate measurement for the snake of 47 to 50 inches!!] It certainly made for an impressive sight and (despite my affection for these snakes) a bit intimidating too. A curled-up snake, if given its space is never something that concerns me too much, but with an active snake I think it’s really important to keep an eye on them and make sure to leave ample distance between yourself and the snake — especially when a portion of your attention (and visual field!) is compromised by photographing or filming. I stayed several feet behind the snake and moved slowly so as not to alarm or intimidate it. My presence seemed to go completely ignored, which is exactly what I aim for when shooting in the field. After several moments out in the open, during which time it investigated small clumps of plants and bits of wood, occasionally flicking its tongue to “taste” the air, it finally disappeared into denser foliage. I am definitely NOT foolish enough to follow a rattler into an area where I can’t keep track of it, so I said a sincere “thank you” (as I always do with accommodating wildlife) and headed back inside. I was pretty sure my tea would need to be re-heated, but what a very small price to pay for such a lasting memory.


large rattlesnake series


large rattlesnake series

Harsi / May 24, 2011 / reptiles / 2 Comments

Spring Snakes (Part I)

rattlesnake digesting mealSouthern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri)
This past Friday afternoon, we were leaving the house to run a few errands. I scanned the steps before walking down them (as I have learned to do) and quickly spotted this immature rattlesnake. It was on the small size at about a foot long, though I have certainly seen them smaller. It was perfectly still and — despite being relatively out in the open — its cryptic coloration made it difficult to pick out from the background. After grabbing a long stick that I keep on the porch (for just such reasons), I carefully walked past it, making sure to lead with the stick. I have NEVER had a rattlesnake try to bite me or be in any way aggressive, but if I have to get this close to them and for some reason the snake were to feel threatened, I think it’s smart to give them something to strike at (other than my foot). As is often the case, this snake didn’t seem the least bit concerned by me, and once I was a few feet passed it, I stopped to have a good look and take some pictures. The first thing I noticed was the obvious bulge in its abdomen. According to my favorite website, California Herps, Southern Pacific Rattlesnake eat “birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, and small mammals, including mice, rats, rabbits, hares, and ground squirrels”. Knowing what’s readily available around our porch and the size of the snake, I would not be at all surprised if its last victim had been a fence lizard (a Great Basin Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis longipes, to be exact). That’s just speculation, of course, we also have good-sized populations of several of the other prey animals on that list. A mouse would be entirely plausible too.) I had never observed a snake in the process of digesting a meal before and I was tickled to be able to get a few photos. Fortunately, when we returned home an hour or so later, this little one had moved on to a less trafficked area.

Just for fun, I thought I’d include this image I took before I headed down the steps. Can you see the snake? If you can’t, click on the image to see a highlighted version… Oh, but it would be so much easier if they were neon yellow! (*chuckle*) Well, easier for me! Undoubtedly much harder on the snake, who makes its way in the world by being difficult for both predators and prey to see.

cryptic rattlesnake
Anyone else have a good snake story or sighting?

Harsi / May 9, 2011 / reptiles / 6 Comments

Be Here Now

I’ve been struggling to finish up the next installment of my retrospective on our trip to Washington last month. (Not struggling because it is unenjoyable, but because I can’t seem to decide which images to share… I’m terrible like that when it comes to making up my mind.) Meanwhile, ever since we returned home, the lure to be outside for large portions of the day grows stronger and stronger. Spring is in full swing and the sight of deer peeking out of tall grasses and the sounds of birds singing their best courtship arias are hard things to resist. (Not to mention the bevy of awesome insects that have arrived and promise a new discovery nearly every day!!) I promised myself that I wouldn’t share any of my recent pics until I’d finished with the tales of our trip — BUT WHO AM I KIDDING??? Some things just need to be shared… especially with friends. I hope you enjoy and be sure to click on the images for embiggened viewing!


Coast Range NewtThe Coast Range Newts (Taricha torosa torosa) are one of my favorite annual phenomena. Though they live in the area year-round, they are only easily observable at the end of Winter and through Spring when they leave their moist terrestrial hide-outs to congregate in the seasonal creek and breed. As they are extremely toxic, the adults have very few known predators, but states: “Southern California populations have suffered population declines due to habitat loss and alteration caused by human activity, and from introduced predatory mosquitofish, crayfish, and bullfrogs, which eat the non-poisonous larvae and eggs. Breeding ponds have been destroyed for development, and stream pools used for breeding have been destroyed by sedimentation caused by wildfires.”
This has been a banner year for them thus far and their numbers seem very healthy… which makes me very happy!

StorksbillStorksbill (Erodium), also known as filaree or heron’s bill, is a non-native that grows rather prolifically here in the canyon.
Its small flowers aren’t very showy, but as with anything in nature, a closer look reveals all kinds of intricate beauty.

Organic cloudsI never tire of looking at (and photographing) clouds. The sky on this day was doing some crazy things and I was fascinated by the organic shapes being created…
Does anyone else see a face on the right?

juvenile curled-up rattlesnakeYup! It’s gotten warm enough for the rattlesnakes to be out basking again. This curled-up juvenile Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri) was about the diameter of an English muffin when I spotted it behind my house last week.
A few days earlier, I saw a curled-up full-grown adult — closer to a medium-sized pizza in that case. *grin*

deer silhouetteThe Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) population this year seems to have grown. I have no good way of knowing exactly how many might live in this canyon, but I do keep track of how many I’ve seen together at the same time. Last month, I trumped my high count (by several!) when I saw a group of nineteen foraging together.
I really, really, really, want to know what this deer is saying… any guesses? *big grin*

mating ladybeetlesAs I mentioned, this is definitely a fantastic time of year to be out if you enjoy studying arthropods! The native Convergent Ladybeetles (Hippodamia convergens) were some of the first insects to start gathering in the lush grasses and new vegetation. [Whoops! I initially mistyped that these were a non-native species.]
As you can see, they are well on their way to creating the next generation.

pink skyEarlier this week, I stood watching the sky long after the sun had set. At first it was all dark blues and purples, but then something shifted and I looked up and saw this…
Can the sky really be that color, I thought? Yes, yes it can…

blurry birdOK, yes, I know this is a picture of a blurry bird… but, I have a fondness for such things and I especially like this one.
*** Super extra-credit bonus points to the first person who can tell me which bird species this is! ***

For those of you for whom Spring has arrived, may you have the time to appreciate all the wonders it has to offer. And for those who are still patiently awaiting an end to cold and wet weather, may the anticipation make its arrival all the sweeter.

Harsi / April 2, 2011 / amphibians, arthropods, birds, flowers, mammals, plants, reptiles, skies / 6 Comments