Nature Study in the Desert

chihuahuan desert

So… I grew up and we currently live in the deserts of the Southwest United States. When I first started reading The Handbook of Nature Study, I thought I knew nothing whatsoever about nature and was ashamed. And then I got The Great Southwest Nature Factbook. And my eyes were opened. It turns out I’d learned a lot about nature growing up in the desert, but it was desert nature. You’d think it would have been obvious, but it hadn’t been.

Anyway, we homeschool with Ambleside Online, and they have a nature study rotation… and I’ve decided to use The Great Southwest Nature Factbook by Susan J. Tweit (Amazon) largely, though not entirely, in place of HONS.

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I love this book; it is SO fun to read. To show you why I love it, here is one of its entries:

TARANTULA HAWK

Tarantula hawks (genus Hemipepsis) are named for their prowess at fighting and subduing even-larger TARANTULA spiders. In this wasp genus, the larger females, up to 4 inches long, are the hunters; male tarantula hawks sip nectar from flowers. Both sexes are slender and handsome, with metallic-black bodies and striking, translucent, mahogany-colored wings. They frequent the Southwest’s lower elevations, wherever tarantulas are found.

After mating, female tarantula hawks run about on the desert surface, searching for tarantulas, the preferred food of their grublike larvae. Once the female wasp finds an active spider burrow, she lures the big, slow-moving spider out, swiftly climbs on its back, and thrusts her half-inch stinger into the spider’s abdomen, paralyzing it. The wasp then laboriously drags the comatose but still-living spider off to her burrow, lays an egg atop the spider, and seals the burrow. Soon the tiny, grublike larva hatches, devours the still-fresh spider, and grows. It eventually pupates, metamorphosing the following spring into an adult wasp. If the offspring is a female, she sets off tarantula hunting; if a male, he hies himself to a lookout post in a tree or shrub atop a promontory and scans for passing females to mate with. Such “hilltopping” is a common insect strategy for locating mates where females are widely dispersed.

See? I told you you’d love it. There’s all kind of nature study in the desert, even if Anna Comstock never wrote a Handbook of Desert Nature Study. If you live in Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas, extreme southern Colorado, or Utah south of I-70, you should totally check this sucker out. 🙂

I made myself a list of topics covered in the Factbook, broken up into term subjects as covered in AO’s nature study rotation. You might notice that some of them are also covered in HONS, so HONS isn’t completely useless.

Maybe you live in the desert, too, so I’m going to share this with you. If you don’t have the Factbook, or are on a book-buying fast (ha!) it might still be a good springboard for topics to Google and learn about on your own. 🙂

Birds

  • Black-throated sparrow (pg. 23)
  • Sandhill crane (pg. 32)
  • Dove (pg. 38)
  • Hawk (pg. 45)
  • Hummingbird (pg. 48)
  • Kestrel (pg. 53)
  • Magpie (pg. 55)
  • Mockingbird (pg. 55)
  • Oriole (pg. 57)
  • Owl (pg. 58)
  • Phainopepla (pg. 60)
  • Piñon and other jays (pg. 62)
  • Poorwill (pg. 64)
  • Quail (pg. 67)
  • Raven (pg. 71)
  • Roadrunner (pg. 72)
  • Thick-billed parrot (pg. 83)
  • Thrasher (pg. 84)
  • Vulture (pg. 87)
  • Wren (pg. 91)

Mammals

  • Bat (pg. 18)
  • Bear (pg. 19)
  • Bighorn sheep (pg. 21)
  • Burro / donkey / ass (pg. 25)
  • Coati (pg. 29)
  • Coyote (pg. 31)
  • Desert cottontail (pg. 35)
  • Jackrabbit (pg. 51)
  • Kangaroo rat (pg. 52)
  • Kit fox (pg. 54)
  • Mountain lion (pg. 56)
  • Pika (pg. 61)
  • Prairie dog (pg. 64)
  • Ringtail (pg. 71)
  • Tassel-eared squirrel (pg. 81)
  • Woodrat (pg. 89)

Wildflowers / Flowerless Plants

  • Columbine (pg. 111)
  • Datura (pg. 117)
  • Desert annual wildflowers (pg. 117)
  • Desert-marigold (pg. 119)
  • Devil’s claw (pg. 119)
  • Elephant head (pg. 121)
  • Evening primrose (pg. 122)
  • Globemallow (pg. 125)
  • Indian paintbrush (pg. 140)
  • Mariposa and sego lilies (pg. 133)
  • Mistletoe (pg. 136)
  • Night-blooming cereus [cactus] (pg. 137)
  • Penstemon or beardtongue (pg. 142)
  • Rabbitbrush (pg. 150)
  • Resurrection plant (pg. 150)

Trees / Shrubs / Vines [… and Cactus]

  • Agave (pg. 99)
  • Arizona cypress (pg. 101)
  • Aspen (pg. 101)
  • Bristlecone pone (pg. 106)
  • Buffalo gourd (pg. 107)
  • Cactus (pg. 108)
    • Barrel cactus (pg. 103)
  • Cottonwood (pg. 113)
  • Creosote bush (pg. 115)
  • Douglas fir (pg. 120)
  • Fir (pg. 123)
  • Ironwood (pg. 127)
  • Jojoba (pg. 128)
  • Joshua tree (pg. 129)
  • Juniper (pg. 130)
  • Lechuguilla (pg. 131)
  • Maple (pg. 133)
  • Mesquite (pg. 134)
  • Oak (pg. 137)
  • Ocotillo (pg. 138)
  • Palm (pg. 140)
  • Paloverde (pg. 141)
  • Piñon-juniper (pg. 143)
  • Piñon pine (pg. 145)
  • Ponderosa pine (pg. 146)
  • Prickly pear and cholla cactus (pg. 147)
  • Sagebrush (pg. 151)
  • Saguaro (pg. 152)
  • Saltcedar or tamarisk (pg. 154)
  • Yucca (pg. 156)

Amphibians

  • Tiger salamander (pg. 73)
  • Spadefoot toad (pg. 76)

Cultivated Crops

  • Beans (pg. 104)
  • Chiles (pg. 110)
  • Corn (pg. 112)
  • Cotton (pg. 113)
  • Salinization (pg. 206)

Weather / Climate

  • Dust devils (pg. 186)
  • Lightning (pg. 192)
  • Mirage (pg. 197)
  • Monsoon (pg. 198)
  • Sunsets (pg. 210)

Insects

  • Ant (pg. 15)
  • Antlion (pg. 17)
  • Bee (pg. 20)
  • Blister beetle (pg. 24)
  • Butterfly (pg. 26)
  • Cochineal insect (pg. 30)
  • Darkling beetle (pg. 33)
  • Digger bee (pg. 37)
  • Grasshopper (pg. 43)
  • Sphinx moth (pg. 78)
  • Tarantula hawk (pg. 80)
  • Termite (pg. 82)
  • Velvet-ant (pg. 86)
  • Yucca moth (pg. 92)

Reptiles

  • Coral snake (pg. 30)
  • Desert tortoise (pg. 35)
  • Gecko (pg. 41)
  • Gila monster (pg. 42)
  • Horned lizard (pg. 47)
  • Rattlesnake (pg. 68)
  • Whiptail lizard (pg. 88)

Brook / River / Ocean

  • Arroyo (pg. 165)
  • Bajada (pg. 166)

Garden flowers / Weeds

  • Tumbleweed [Russian thistle] (pg. 155)

Invertebrates

  • Black widow spider (pg. 23)
  • Centipede and millipede (pg. 29)
  • Freshwater shrimp (pg. 40) [These magically appear wherever there’s a puddle, believe it or not.]
  • Scorpion (pg. 74)
  • Tarantula (pg. 79)

Rocks / Minerals / Soil

  • Arches (pg. 163)
  • Caliche (pg. 169)
  • Coal (pg. 179)
  • Copper (pg. 184)
  • Desert pavement (pg. 186)
  • Desert varnish (pg. 186)
  • Fungus (pg. 123)
  • Hoodoo (pg. 191)
  • Lichen (pg. 132)
  • Malpaís (pg. 193)
  • Mesa (pg. 194)
  • Microbiotic crusts (pg. 196)
  • Natural bridges (pg. 200)
  • Playas (pg. 204)
  • Sand dunes (pg. 207)
  • Slickrock (pg. 210)
  • Turqoise (pg. 211)
  • Uranium (pg. 211)
  • Watermelon snow (pg. 146)

Fish

  • Eel (pg. 39) [Yes, there are eels in the Southwest. Specifically in the Rio Grande.]
  • Pupfish (pg. 65)
  • Squawfish (pg. 78)
  • Sturgeon (pg. 79)
  • Trout (pg. 85)
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