In many parts of North America it’s rattlesnake season. And while they are most often found in deserts, scrubland, and plains, they do occupy a variety of habitats that also includes forests and swamps. Clearly they are adaptable.

Photo Credit – J.N. Stuart

Rattlesnakes have that signature rattle to warn people to stay away. They make the sound by shaking their tails which causes the hard scales inside the tip to bang together. Those scales are made out of keratin, the same thing as human nails and hair. And, the number of scales increases as the snake ages.

What’s especially interesting about a rattlesnake’s rattle is that it can vary the frequency of the sound to make it seem like the snake is closer than it really is. It does this by shaking it’s tail up to 90 times per second. One study revealed that the frequency changes when someone is about 13 feet away. The change fools the approaching person and helps the snake keep a safe perimeter around them. This amazing adaptation actually helps both the snake and people. The snake doesn’t get trampled and the person doesn’t get bitten. Personally, I appreciate the warning!

Frog and Toad

Frog and toad – I’m not talking about the famous early readers by Arnold Lobel. I’m talking about the actual amphibians now out of hibernation peeping, croaking, trilling, clicking, and chirping. We often use the terms frog and toad interchangeably. But while they may be of the same order, they belong to different families.

Photo Credit – Dave Huth

There are key differences between them, starting with skin. Frogs have smooth, shiny skin, while toads have skin that is bumpy and dry. Which leads to the fact that frogs are found in or near water (thus the shiny, moist skin) while toads spend more time on land and move further away from water sources. This also means that if you find a small hopping amphibian away from water, it’s likely a toad.

Still not sure? Take a look at the legs and body. Toads have shorter legs and tend to be a bit squat. They are not quite as proficient at hopping as their sleeker, long-legged cousins. Because of this toads often crawl instead of hop. And, toads have a rounder snout, while frogs’ snouts are more pointed.

No matter whether you spot or hear frogs or toads, be grateful. Neither can live in polluted habitats and don’t do well with environmental changes. So you know if you see or hear them, the ecosystem is a healthy one.


For a long time in my life I never really gave much thought to bees, other than to avoid being stung. Like most people, I learned in elementary school that they are pollinators, responsible for the reproduction of flowering plants. The takeaway was – no bees, no flowers. Beyond that, my education did nothing to teach me the true value and wonder of bees.

I’d always thought that a bee was just a bee. Yet there are more than 20,000 different species of bees in the world, with 4,000 of them living in the United States. They range in size from the smallest Perdita minima of the desert southwest, measuring less than .08 inches long, to the aptly named Wallace’s giant bee, which can grow to 1.5 inches long. Bees live on every continent in the world, except Antarctica, and they occupy a wide range of habitats – forests, deserts, mountains, grasslands, wetlands, and even on the tundra of Alaska. While we tend to think of bees as living with colonies in hives, some live in trees or underground, and some are solitary.

The most important thing to know about bees, though, is that they are a keystone species. It might be hard to imagine that such small animals have such a vital role on Earth. But together, trillions of bees have an enormous impact. Yes, without bees many plant species would cease to exist, and many ecosystems would collapse. Not only that, but bees are essential crop pollinators. In fact, one in three bites of food we eat is dependent on bees. So next time you sit down for a meal, thank a bee.

Of course, like so many species, bee populations are in decline. At home there are many things we can all do to support bees, including planting pollinator gardens with plants native to your area, eliminating the use of pesticides, making a bee bath, or opening a bee hotel. All of these are simple, yet important way to help protect the bees near you. For more information, visit the Bee Conservancy!


Image by xiSerge from Pixabay.

Echidnas are wonderfully odd creatures. So odd, in fact, it’s almost as if Mother Nature pieced them together using successful features of a variety of other animals. Echidnas, which live in desert, scrubland, and mountains forests of Australia and New Guinea, are known as spiny anteaters, even though they aren’t related to anteaters. While those aren’t technically spines, they are hairs, they are sharp enough to offer echidnas some protection. If an echidnas can’t get away from an approaching predator, they will curl up in a tiny ball to protect their soft underbelly, like a hedgehog or armadillo would, or they will dig themselves into the ground with only their spines showing.

Were you to look at an echidna’s tiny face, you’d see small, beady eyes (that don’t help echidnas see all that well) and an elongated nose called a beak. But that beak isn’t hard like the beak of a bird, though it is strong enough to be used to get into termite mounds, logs, and dirt looking for insects to eat. Like anteaters, echidnas are toothless. They use their 7-inch-long, sticky tongues to slurp up insects and worms. Then they use hard pads on the roof of their mouth and back of the tongue to grind the tasty treats into a paste. Then…gulp!

The oddness of these animals gets even odder if you consider that, like platypuses, they are monotremes – egg-laying mammals. But let’s back up a minute. A group of echidnas is called a parade. But, during breeding season, several males will waddle after a female, sometimes for days. This is called a train. At last, when she’s ready, she’ll stop. The males then dig a rut around her, then wrestle each other for the right to mate with her. The last one in the ring is the victor and will use his 4-headed member to mate with her first. You read that correctly. Twenty-two days after mating, the female lays one leathery, soft egg which she then pushes into her pouch. Ten days after that, the spineless, jellybean-sized baby hatches. It’s called a puggle!!! It stays there, nursing, for 7-8 weeks until it gets too prickly and is evicted.

While echidnas are mammals all unto their own, they must be doing something right – they’ve been around, and relatively unchanged, for roughly 50 million years.

To me it seems counterintuitive that a bird would live in an underground burrow. Even ground-nesting seems, well, dangerous. But plenty of birds do one or the other and thrive, despite the dangers. One of those is the burrowing owl.

The western burrowing owl lives in short grass prairies and deserts across the western US (including Colorado!) and in Central America. These owls live in burrows abandoned by other animals like prairie dogs, tortoises, and ground squirrels. Though not particularly built for creating burrows themselves (though some pairs do!), the owls will maintain and enlarge burrows by digging with their beak and using their feet to move dirt.

Unlike other owl species, burrowing owls hunt during the day as well as at night. They hunt small mammals, insects, amphibians, and even other birds. Though they do fly when hunting, much of it is done by walking, hopping, or running on the ground and grasping prey with their talons. In addition, they will line the entrance to the burrow with dung. This attracts insects, creating an owl buffet. Genius! During brooding season these burrowers will stash food in burrow chambers to ensure they have enough food.

These birds are usually monogamous and live in colonies. A breeding pair works together to raise a clutch of up to a dozen. During incubation and in the first weeks after the eggs hatch, the female stays with the eggs or young, and the males brings food and defend the territory.

I’ve lived in Colorado for 30 years, near prime burrowing owl habitat, and I’ve never seen one. Now I’m on the lookout!


I have spent many, many hours watching dolphins with my aunt, both from the beach and from a boat. Seeing them up close or from afar brings a sense of joy. I never asked her why she loved them, I just accepted that she did and joined her in that love. Whenever I see a dolphin, my first thought is always of her.

Perhaps she loved dolphins because they are intelligent creatures. Not only do they have excellent problem-solving skills, they’ve been known to use tools. In addition, different pods have created innovative ways to hunt, showing both intelligence and incredible teamwork. They also have a sophisticated communication system that includes a variety of squeaks, clicks, and whistles. Dolphins use this language for communicating with one another, and like bats they use the sounds for hunting. This tells the dolphins the size, shape, and location of their prey.

Dolphins also like to have fun. While jumping out of the water is sometimes to get a better view of their surroundings, it’s oftentimes because of their playful nature. They will surf in the wake of a boat too, leaping and diving in the waves. Some dolphins even know certain boat schedules and sounds, and will appear when the boat takes off. Dolphins also like to play with objects. Because of their social and curious nature, they will even play with people.

But maybe my aunt loved dolphins because play, work, travel, and explore widely…and they do it together.

Bat Appreciation

April 17 is International Bat Appreciation day. Why take a day to appreciate bats? Because bats are often baselessly feared and vilified. Yet armed with a little knowledge, I think everyone can come to appreciate them.

Juvenile Mariana Fruit Bat, Photo Credit: Anne Brooke USFWS

Bats are Earth’s only flying mammals and there are over 1,400 different species, with 40 species in the United States. They can live to be 100 years old. Many species can fly at over 60 miles per hour; the Brazilian free-tailed bat was clocked at over 100 mph! As you probably know, they use echolocation to find their food.

But here’s where the appreciation should really kick in. Bats eat pest insects. A lot of them. Some species will eat 1,200 mosquitoes in an hour throughout the night. For farmers, bats are especially important. According to Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, “Insect-eating bats save farmers approximately $23 billion in annual agricultural losses in the United States alone.” In addition, bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers for 70% of tropical fruits. Their guano is also a rich fertilizer.

The fear of bats has been sensationalized using misinformation. But the truth is, if people leave bats alone, which they should, bats will leave people alone. Armed with the facts, we should not fear bats, but instead respect and appreciate them.

The Wonder of Eggs

Hummingbird Eggs – Photo Credit – Renee Grayson

Bird eggs are one of nature’s many masterpieces both in appearance and function. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Shape-wise, it’s easy to stereotype eggs as all looking like chicken eggs. But hummingbirds, for example, lay eggs the shape of Tic-Tacs. Many owls lay eggs that look like golf balls. And other birds lay eggs at are pear-shaped. Scientists are still unraveling the mystery behind why different birds have different shaped eggs. The latest research suggests that birds that spend more time flying have more elongated eggs, while those that don’t lay rounder eggs. There are, of course, exceptions to this because king penguins lay eggs that are somewhat pear-shaped, but they don’t fly at all. They’re still researching.

The largest eggs are laid by ostriches – they are about 6 inches long and can weigh up to four pounds! It is no surprise that the smallest eggs are laid by hummingbirds; these eggs only weigh as much as a paperclip and are roughly a half inch long (but there are also many species of hummingbirds, some larger than others, so egg size also varies). Egg shells also vary in thickness. The award for the thickest egg goes to the cassowary of New Guinea and Australia, which are about ¼ inch thick!

Eggs also have different colors and patterns. The red-winged tinamou of South America, for example, lays monochromatic glossy eggs that vary from purple to yellowish green. Robins lay beautiful blue eggs. Other eggs have spots or speckles or streaks or lines like an abstract work of art, like that of the great bowerbird. In some cases, these markings work as camouflage to deter predators. Shore birds, for example, lay speckled eggs that blend in with pebbles or sand.

All bird eggs are made of calcium carbonate. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this is the same material mollusks build their shells from! Bird eggs are also porous. This leads to a question that had never occurred to me until investigating eggs: how does a developing chick breathe? As it turns out, there is a small pocket of air in the egg. The chicks breathe this air and exhale carbon dioxide, which can then escape from those pores! The pores also allow moisture in. This protects the baby bird and the inside of the egg from drying out. If you think about it, eggs are kind of brilliant. They offer the developing chick shelter, food, air, moisture – everything it needs!

Great Blue Heron

There’s always something magical about spotting a heron at the water’s edge (at least for me). They are elegant and graceful, poised and stately. They stand like statues watching for prey. Then, when they’re ready to strike, it’s lighting fast. It’s as if their necks are spring loaded. As it turns out, they kind of are.

Photo Credit – Kozarluha

Herons have special neck vertebrae that allow them to curl their necks into an S-shape. They do this when flying, but also when hunting. The curled neck allows them to strike quickly from a distance with incredible force. The unsuspecting fish or frog or small mammal never knows what hit ‘em. Sometimes herons will grab their prey in their beaks. Other times they simply impale them. Stealth and powerful, herons can also hunt both day and night thanks to special photoreceptors in their eyes that give them night vision.

These stately birds are also fastidious about keeping clean. But they don’t just splash around in the water to do this. They have specialized downy chest feathers that grow continually and fray. To wash, herons crumble these feathers into dust and then use that “powder down” like a washcloth. They comb it over their bodies using a claw on their middle toes which helps absorb and remove silt, oils, and fish slime on their feathers as they preen.

Interestingly herons nest in colonies that can number 500 birds. I find this interesting because I’ve only ever seen them one at a time! However, a little bit of Googling has revealed that there’s a “heronry” (new word!) near me. And, nesting season is here!

Sea Pickles

Gotcha at the title, right? I mean, sea pickles are really a thing? They are! And they are not to be confused with sea cucumbers which are echinoderms, related to starfish and sea urchins, that move along the sea floor on rows of tiny feet.

Photo credit – Peter D. Tillman

Sea pickles, on the other hand, are pyrosomes that float freely through open water. Not only that, what we call a sea pickle isn’t just one organism. No, one sea pickle is actually a colony of hundreds to thousands of individual zooids, muti-cellular animals about the size of a grain of rice that each have a heart and a brain. They are filter-feeders that consumer bacteria and small plankton as they move through the ocean. Sea pickles are also bioluminescent!

Words to describe a sea pickle include semi-translucent, tubular, gelatinous, but also rigid and bumpy. These colonies can grow to more than 2 feet long, but most are between 1 and ten inches long. They are also harmless, so you can touch them. But don’t let the name fool you – you don’t want to eat one.