Before I exhaust the “Rites of Spring” genre, I want to touch on several things, then be done with it. First, the truly remarkable ‘ritual’ migrations of Monarch and Painted Lady are underway, but conditions are poor and all such migrants are in for a tough trip this spring. North-bound Monarchs are never abundant in New Mexico because we are usually off-axis from the main migration route from Mexico, and from whatever is happening in greater Arizona. In most years only a few are recorded in our state. This year’s first sighting was in Portales! James Lofton shared the included photo, showing one of a few he saw within a few days of each other. Plagued by drought-like the rest of us, with nectar very scarce, James said: “The dandelion crop [is the] savior this spring.” Then Jim VonLoh shared photos of a monarch nectaring at willows along the Rio Grande near Las Cruces on March 26.
1. Please welcome Common Mellana (Quasimellana eulogius) to the New Mexico butterfly fauna! I’ve uploaded a brief account to Butterflies of New Mexico so you can check it out. We don’t get new state records very often! Now we need photos: male, female, dorsal, ventral. Have any to share?
2. Species accounts for Carus Skipper and Tropical Least Skipper have been spruced up considerably thanks to the addition of fabulous photos by Jim VonLoh, who we add to our phalanx of photographers.
3. Recent conversations with Paul Opler and Andy Warren eliminated any doubts I had about the identity of the spring-flying dotted blue from near Aztec in San Juan County. Until someone dissects them and proves otherwise, I’m calling it Stanfords’ Blue (Euphilotes stanfordorum). Even better, excellent images of this species from Colorado were provided by Ralph Moore. See the updated species account in Butterflies of New Mexico.
I can’t dive into today’s topic without some big “Thank Yous” and a heads-up. Thanks to Bill Beck, Jim Brock, Matt Brown, Bill Dempwolf, Rebecca Gracey, Cathryn Hoyt, Ken Kertell, and Joe Schelling for responding to my photo requests so promptly and effectively. Significant holes were filled and Butterflies of New Mexico looks more complete and more beautiful than ever. Thanks, you guys!
Second, Marcy and I recently completed a fun, late February/early March trip to the area covered by this Rites of Spring II post. I will write up that adventure for a future post. Meanwhile, this present effort has been in the queue for several weeks and I want to get it out. In doing so, however, I must note that the spring hilltoppers phenomenon described is expressed to different degrees in different years and at different localities. My very recent scouting of the geographic area involved suggests this will not be a “10” year for our desert’s spring hilltoppers, but more likely a 1 or a 2, due to pervasive, severe drought. If you go, you may very well see some of the players, but in small numbers.
But first, a big “THANK YOU” to Bryan Reynolds for his fun and informative mid-winter posts. I’m learning a lot from him and hope to team up with him on some future stories as we go along.
Here in New Mexico’s mid-continent, mid-latitude setting, all resident life forms including butterflies have ways to deal with challenging times. Winter, for example, is cold enough (regular sub-freezing temperatures), long enough (few to several months), and predictable enough (annual) to effectively sort adapted from non-adapted creatures. Can’t get through a long, cold winter? Then you don’t live here on a permanent, resident basis.
One of the hallmarks of springtime is the emergence of reptiles from their winter inactivity. Lizards and snakes spend the winter underground, burying themselves below the frost line. As the weather gets warmer, you will begin to see them out and about, at first just during the warmest part of the day. You may see them basking to warm up in the morning, and actively hunting prey in the early afternoon. If the evenings are still cold, they will retreat back underground at night.
First to Emerge
Since emergence depends on temperature, the first places you are likely to see lizards are in warm, sun-soaked sites. Look for them in the Rio Grande valley, and on warm mesa-tops. They emerge later in the mountains.
Emergence varies by species. The first species of lizard you are likely to see are fence lizards. This species is highly adaptable to a wide range of temperatures, and are quite tolerant of cool-but-sunny spring days. Some other species, such as the whiptails, require a higher temperature. Whiptails will emerge later, and have shorter periods of activity only in the warmest part of spring days.
Soaking in the Sun
Basking in the sun serves two essential purposes for lizards: heat and vitamin D. Reptiles produce very little of their own body heat, and are almost entirely dependent on heat from their environment. Unlike us, they have a range of body temperatures in which they can function. Most reptiles can only digest food above a certain temperature, so they bask in order to be warm enough to digest their food.
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for all vertebrate species, and sunshine is the major source for most lizards. Their diet of insects doesn’t provide enough vitamin D, so they depend on basking to provide it. In fact, scientific studies have shown that lizards bask longer when their bodies are deficient in vitamin D.
Pro Tip: Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, and thus helps build strong bones, both in humans and lizards.
Be an Instant Expert
To be a bird expert, you will need to learn more than 100 species, but being a lizard expert is easy. We have only about a dozen species in the area, and there are just two types that vastly predominate: the fence lizard and a group of related species that we will lump together as the whiptails. If you learn to tell the difference between the fence lizard and the whiptails, you can easily identify 90% of the lizards you see, and everyone will think you’re a pro!
Pro Tip: You can distinguish between the fence lizard and the whiptails on the basis of their tail length.
Let’s take a closer look at the differences between fence lizards and whiptails.
Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)
The first lizards to emerge in spring are also the most common: the fence lizard. This lizard goes by several different common names, including Swift, Prairie Lizard, and Blue-belly. Some individuals, especially juveniles, have a herringbone-like pattern of dark brown markings on a light brown body. Some adults also have this pattern, or their markings may fade to a uniform gray-brown.
Fence lizards have blue patches on their chin and belly, giving them the common name Blue-belly. These patches are larger and more obvious in males than in females. In spring, you may see a male Fence lizard doing “push-ups” in order to display his blue belly to a nearby female.
The Whiptail Lizard Family (Aspidoscelis spp.)
The whiptails are a group of related species named for their long, thin tails. We have five whiptail species that occur in our area, but even experts have difficulty distinguishing some of the species at a glance. The whiptails require very warm temperatures to be active, and thus their emergence comes later in spring.
Whiptails are very fast-moving. They often display jerky start-stop movements, which can create a unique sound when they move through leaf litter or dry grass.
Most whiptails have “racing stripes” running the length of their body. Like fence lizards, the whiptails have courtship rituals in springtime, so spend some time watching their antics.
We are exploring our local black bears in today’s Take It Outside post. These creatures are beginning to emerge from their winter dens now! Now is a great time to make sure you are using bear resistant trash cans and to start bringing your bird feeders in at night to avoid attracting bears to your yard.
Join PEEC’s Gift Shop and Programs Coordinator Ashleigh Lusher for a critter live-feed from the nature center on Friday, April 3 at 1 PM. Ask questions about our resident critters and get a behind-the-scenes look at the work of our Critter Care team. Tune in here tomorrow afternoon.
Bears are champions of smell! They have been known to follow a food scent from 2 miles away, and a dead animal carcass from 20 miles away. How well can you smell?
Choose different scented plants, natural materials, or spices to include in your scent challenge. Place in cups with air holes and challenge the other members in your family to identify the items! Extend this by making a scented painting. Mix spices or grind up scented plants from outside, like sage or juniper, and make scented “paint.”
It takes a while for a bear’s appetite to ramp up after the winter. They’re not as hungry now as they are in the fall. This is one way they’re well-adapted to their environment, because there’s not much to eat outside early in the spring. Pretend to be a bear looking for spring food. Can you find the following?
Tender plant and grass shoots
Soft tree buds
Last-year’s dried fruits and berries
Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):
Bears aren’t the only ones whose behavior depends on the season! See if you can find any of the following:
Birds building nests (crows and house finches are early nesters)
Bees pollinating flowers
Hummingbirds chasing each other to establish territories
Red squirrels retrieving food from caches
Abert’s squirrels chasing potential mates
Deer stags that have shed one or both antlers
Increased gopher mounds and tunnels
Signs of bear activity
Let us know what other spring behavior you notice!