Earth Almanac

Sweet summer treats; early retirement; world’s best web designer and world’s smallest owl; more.

1 | Desert Tails

In chaparral, creosote-bush and sagebrush desert, pinyon-juniper woodlands, and dry grasslands from southern Nevada to western Mexico, western banded geckos are struggling from their eggshells. You probably won’t find juveniles or adults during daylight unless you turn over rocks and logs. To beat the heat they hunt insects and spiders mostly at night. When a predator seizes the tail of a western banded gecko it will detach and wiggle seductively, potentially allowing the abbreviated lizard to escape. The gecko’s blood vessels snap shut, and a tail will regenerate. But because nutrients are stored in the tail, its loss—especially close to hibernation—can threaten survival. Like other members of the eyelid-gecko subfamily, this species can blink its large eyes, which have vertical, catlike pupils. These features, along with its tendency to stand tall and wave its fleshy tail over its back when it perceives danger, give it an air of refined intelligence—almost as if it were about to sell you insurance. 

2 | Early to Bed

Hibernating is the last thing anyone thinks about in mid-summer—unless you’re a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. A few may start as early as July. They’ll dig a burrow that runs below the frost line, plug the entrance, then slow respiration from about 200 breaths per minute to around 20. As the season progresses, their body temperature will drop to just above freezing. Before they awaken in late winter they’ll have lost a third of their weight. Also known as “gophers,” thirteen-lined ground squirrels range from central Canada through the middle two-thirds of the United States. The Gopher State (Minnesota) is named for them, but they derive their more common name from the seven broad, dark-brown stripes alternating with six thin tan bands that extend from nape to tail base. Because the species is best adapted to short-grass prairies, the cropped turf that attends human development has allowed it to vastly expand its range. Look for these handsome, chipmunk-like rodents on sunny days as they pause from feasting on seeds and insects to stand on their hind legs and scan for predators.

3 | Summer Goodies

If there is an essence of high summer, it is the black raspberry, a name shared by two closely related species common in most western and eastern states north of the southern tier. Along roadsides, fencerows, in open woodlands and old pastures, they hang as if set out by some doting spirit to further indulge wildlife and humans already drugged on the ripeness of August. Black raspberries—sweeter but seedier than red raspberries—are delicious eaten plain, on cereal, or in jams. They have long been prescribed as internal and topical medicine. And while their effectiveness for remedying such ailments as gonorrhea and ulcers is debatable, they have been shown to inhibit multiple stages of oral, esophageal, and colon cancer. Black raspberries are at their finest when they have softened and drop easily into one’s palms. Make sure to enlist kids in picking the ripe fruit, firmly instructing them not to eat any. Then, when their buckets are full, ask them why their lips and tongues are purple.

4 | Recycled Tapestries

Hike any woodland path in the East on a summer morning and sooner or later you will feel it on your face. Or, if you’re lucky, you'll see it first. More often than not it will be hung between two trees on a horizontal line, and frequently the tightly spaced parallel lines will sparkle with dew. It is the web of the spined micrathena spider, one of the most beautiful and intricate tapestries in nature. The well-armored artist you see resting belly-up on the web is almost certainly the female, a fact you can confirm if it’s about a half inch in length. The male, about a quarter-inch long and flatter with fewer spines, doesn’t spin webs but does weave a thread into the web of a prospective mate so that he may run out and quickly mate with her. For him there’s no “safe sex,” because his advance is apt to get him killed. Don’t assume that what landed on the back of your neck and is crawling around there is a deer fly. While the spined micrathena spider can’t deliver much of a bite, swat one and you will drive the spines into your flesh. If you see her web before walking into it, stop to admire it because it won’t be there another day. At nightfall she’ll eat it.

5 | Elfin Magic

In the southwestern United States and Mexico sparrow-sized elf owls, the world’s smallest owls, are fledging young from north-facing holes that woodpeckers have excavated in giant saguaros and other cacti, in fence posts and telephone poles, and in such trees as Arizona sycamores, alligator junipers, and cottonwoods. Keep checking the holes and, sooner or later, pale yellow eyes under white brows will stare back at you. Elf owls perch on long, bowed legs. And while they tend to be tame, if you approach one too closely or quickly, it may utter a sharp cheeur, turn its head to the side, and raise a long wing to cover face and breast. Occasionally elf owls have been seen to take small snakes and mammals, but because of their diminutive size they feed almost exclusively on insects and arachnids, including scorpions whose stingers they manage to detach. Look for elf owls around streetlights and well-lit porches as they maneuver in batlike flight, hawking moths and beetles. And listen for them, especially on moonlit nights, as they call to one another with high-pitched whinnies or chuckles. To hear the full repertoire of vocalizations, go to With the onset of cold weather, elf owls leave the United States to take up winter residence in Mexico.