Saturday, May 23, 2009

Fence Lizards in Love

The little Miwok boy dashed between the rocks of the Sierra creek bed. His cornered "prey" squeezed into a crack in an attempt to outlast the agile lad. But he was too smart for that. Some deft work with a long blade of grass gave him the tool he needed. With a snap of his wrist he looped the lizard around the neck, and popped him out of the crack and into his hand. He tossed the slip-loop aside, and inspected his new blue and black friend. "Gentle!," his Father called with a laugh as he fished nearby. "Remember - his great Ancestor gave you hands!" "Be hard to catch them with paws!," added his Big Brother from downstream, where he fished a second pool.

That's right!, the wide-eyed boy thought. The storytellers had sung the tale. Coyote and Lizard created the world, and when Coyote made people, it was Lizard who fought to get us hands like his so we could use tools! He stroked the blue chin of his small friend. It's eyes closed in hypnotic appreciation. After a moment, he carefully set it by to the crack and whispered "thank you." The smile in his eyes almost seemed mirrored by the lizard as it gazed back at him. Then it scuttled into the crack. "There's another one!" he called out. "And he's even bigger!" He scampered its way. After all, he thought, I have 10 fingers to thank Lizard for too!

His Father & Brother laughed again, their fingers resting gently on their lines, carefully controlling the tension and feeling for nibbles and bites, as the hooked-grasshoppers tumbled down the rapids, and into the pools where the fish lay. They both recalled the many days when they too had chased among the rocks, and thanked Lizard for the gift of clever hands.

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I'm a big fan of fence lizards. To me, they epitomize the long, hot summers of rural California living. Bright skies, dry grassy hills, the buzz of bees, the shade of oaks, the smell of pepper trees & fennel, and a blue belly on every stump, log & interesting rock. As a kid we chased them relentlessly. Especially around my Grandparent's pool that backed up to the local creek. They can live 5 or 6 years, so I'm sure we caught the same ones over and over and didn't realize it.

"Where have you been? I've been worried sick. Have you lost your tail again?"

"Yeah - those kids caught me out sunning by the pool pump again..."

We hunted them so often that as a prank birthday gift, my Aunt made me a lasso for catching 'em. You know - the classic string 'n hang-man's noose attached to the end of a long stick ala the big game hunters of Hatari!? Little did we know that many experts actually do make lassos for catching lizards. Little did she know that we could more easily catch them with our hands, put them in the lasso, and then get her back by telling her that her prank worked "just great!" Ha!

So goes my lifetime fondness for good ole Sceloporus occidentalis - the Western Fence Lizard.

Here's why they've gotten the nickname "blue belly" btw:
and an iridescent blue belly
Fence Lizards can lighten and darken for heat absorption, mating & camouflage

Well, ever since we removed a couple of problematic trees and opened up the back patio of our family lodge to Father Sun, several of these aspiring micro dragons have taken up residence. Makes sense - there's warm stones and sunning logs, convenient nooks & bolt holes, and an endless supply of ants plodding along in ready-to-enjoy buffet lines. A veritable Eden for Western Fence Lizards. And, the many windows overlooking the patio allow camera-toting Western Nature Lovers, like me, a blind-view eye into their fascinating world.

A recent episode began with a glimpse of blue caught by the corner of my eye. It was Blue Boy out for some afternoon push-ups in the warmth of the newly emerging spring sun...

pretty boy does pushups with style
Blue Boy doing push-ups to attract Fair Maiden (they also do push-ups to define & defend the borders of their territories - it shows their health & strength)

I stopped to watch. His push-ups were quite splendid. His flaring of chin & chest spectacular.

Len Goodman of ABC's Dancing with the Stars would probably have given him an 8. But then, the Brits call them "press-ups." When a Brit buddy of mine told me he could do "100 press-ups" I suggested that he call them "push-ups" or 100 will never be enough.

As I watched a bit more, I realized why Blue Boy was so vibrantly colored and purposefully pressing. It's spring, and he was trying to catch the eye of the Fair Maiden who lives in a log bench 1/2 way down the patio...

blue belly guarding perfect sun perch
Fair Maiden watching Blue Boy (female Western Fence Lizards have blue bellies too, but it's lighter and they often have much less blue on their neck (or even none). Like males, the blue does brighten during mating spring season)

After a few more push-ups, Blue Boy wandered over and Fair Maiden came down from her promontory to have a look at him. So, he did the shimmy for her - swishing around her in "S" motions, while shuddering and vibrating like a break dancer. She watched ever so casually.

let the courting begin
Blue Boy doing courting dance for Fair Maiden

And as she coyly climbed her log bench lair, he kept up his smooth lizard strut in pursuit:

playing coy?
Fair Maiden acting coy

he's up to the challenge
Blue Boy showing persistence

His romancing musta worked too. Here's the happy couple at her den a little while later...

the happy couple

We'll have to watch for little baby blue bellies this summer.

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Blue Belly Lizards Kill Lyme Disease

Here's an amazing reason why it's so great to have Western Fence Lizards around your yard - they reduce the chance of Lyme disease! Deer ticks (the prime tick carrier of the Lyme disease bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi) are so small that they commonly feed on fence lizards - especially around the ears. Here's a closeup of a sweet soul with a few ticks:

is that a friendly grin or what?

Well, it's been found that after biting a blue belly, the deer ticks become bacteria-free. Yep - they're disinfected. Apparently, a protein in the blood of Sceloporus occidentalis kills the bacteria (Sceloporus undulatus has it too for you Eastern Fence Lizard fans). As a result, the incidence of Lyme disease in areas with fence lizards is lower than in areas without them.

Go figure!

So next time you see a fence lizard, give it a head bob in thanks. And if you live in an area with fence lizards and deer, you might wanna put out a few interesting rock piles and perches to attract our little blue bellied friends!

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How to be a Lizard Wrangler

It's fun to watch and catch blue bellies to check 'em out. Here's a couple of tips and tricks and things to think about when doing so.

First, blue bellies have territories, so you should always release them where you caught 'em. That way they can refind their home. I.e., think alien abduction and leave no evidence that it was gone...

"Yo - where you been?"

"Dude - I was catching some sweet rays when I was suddenly transported to some far away world and prodded and inspected by gigantic aliens..."

"Yeah - right - you gotta stop eating those red ants man - they'll fry your brain."

If you do keep 'em for a day or two, make sure they have air and some Sun. And a rock or some leaves for hiding, and some bugs for snacking. I use a terrarium that's about 2 gallons.

Blue bellies have good vision, but like many critters, it's very motion-oriented. If you see one looking at you from a distance - bob your head. They'll often see this motion, think it's another lizard doing territory "marking" push-ups, and respond in kind. It's quite funny to get a good back-and-forth head bobbing going.

You can also leverage their motion-vision to "sneak" up on them in plain view. Move slowly, go in a direct line, and keep your profile shape unchanging. I.e., don't wave your arms, move left-right, or make motions they'll see and think is a hawk or like. I've walked up, eased my hand in and stroked their chins before (to the jaw-drop surprise of lizard-illiterate friends).

Fence lizards can drop/lose their tail, so be gentle when catching and handling them. They'll grow it back, but it's a defense mechanism, so they'll be less safe until it does.

They're fast when warm! They can move as quick as any rodent, so try to catch them by surprise and/or when they're colder. Or make a lizard lasso. :)

They can really hop. I've watched them casually jump over 3 feet. From patio to tree, from rock to rock in the pond... That's about 6 times their body length. Amazing. Be like us jumping over 30 feet from a stand-still. In basketball, it's only 23 feet from the 3-point line to the rim...

Last, some do like their bellies and necks rubbed. Really. Stroke them gently (if the lizard isn't too freaked out), and they'll blissfully lie on their backs with feet in the air and eyes closed, and you won't even need to hold onto them.

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Some more pics I've taken of wonderful westerns...

outta hibernation a room with a view
micro baby blue belly fence lizard with lots of blue
vibrant blue and teal spotsguardian dragon
hibernating fence lizardfinally - a use for the head!

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References:
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10 comments:

  1. Thanks for a fun and very informative lizard post! Love that blue.

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  2. How cool! Thanks for sharing these terrific photos.

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  3. That is so cool about the ticks.....I had no idea. Unfortunately, I think I cleaned up the regurgitated remains of one of these guys off the floor this morning. My cats will never learn....

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  4. I like that you mix stories and facts into your post. I always thank animals after I take their picture. It's for the picture though, I never thought of thanking them for hands.

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  5. Thanks all! The ticks factoid is incredibly cool huh? Just goes to show how much we still have to learn about nature.

    Ratty - glad you liked the story about the boy thanking the lizard for hands. It's adapted from the real beliefs of the Sierra Miwok. I find it interesting that they chose lizards as the legend for the origin of their hands - but without any other primates in North America they didn't have a lot of choices. Guess they coulda picked squirrels... :)

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  6. That is a great series of courtship photos of the blue bellies. Great info too.

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  7. Well done!! I love the Miwok connections you make, and the lizard facts are new to me....and fascinating. Photos are top-notch, as always, and the little humorous interjections are fun! Looking forward to our next entry.

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  8. Hi! Really nice story! However, fencies don't really tend to protect their eggs (unless you have proof), and a 2 gallon tank is *WAY* too small for a bluebelly. If you want to keep one, use a 10 gal.

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  9. Thank you for the informative and entertaining post. The photos are great. We have a couple of fence lizards I have been feeding for over a year. I give them meal-worms (I hope that is cool) and they run up my hand to eat. I found your site because recently one of them had an arched back and a deep blue belly. From your pix I realized she is carrying eggs. She also isn't eating much, but the male keeps jumping in when I try. Thanks to you I now know he is being defensive. Thanks again and I will be following your posts.

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